On behalf of the 70 refugee protecting agencies represented by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak today.
ECRE and many other European nongovernmental organisations have actively contributed to the preparation of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. We were therefore genuinely pleased with the inclusion in the Charter of Article 18 on the right on asylum which stresses the importance of the respect of the Geneva Convention of 1951 and Article 19 on the principle of non refoulement.
Fundamental Rights are important. Human rights are important. They are at the roots of what Europe stands for, or at least: of what it should stand for.
It is easy enough to criticise foreign countries for their violations of human rights. Many European governments and politicians do that.
But, the best way of judging Europe's commitment to human rights is to look how we treat those who try to flee these violations.
Europe rightly criticises countries such as Aghanistan or Iraq for the pattern of human rights violations. But what happens to those who flee those countries?
What protection do we offer? Or, are we most keen on deterring them - keep them away from this future Common Area of Freedom, Security and Justice?
You all know what is happening now in Macedonia. We must act to avoid that the worse happens; but if we fail and people flee – what will Europe’s countries do? Provide protection, share responsibility?
Still, whatever happens, we must remember that the numbers of people fleeing to the countries of the European union will be much fewer than the numbers of refugees that find protection in countries like Iran or Pakistan - countries much less well equipped to cope than we are.
ECRE welcomed many of the principled statements of the Tampere Summit of 1999. However we are worried that, at the end of this year at the Laeken Summit, we may conclude that Europe has not come far, or even gone back in some respects.
We see too many negative political emotions, states competing against each other. Governments saying to their neighbouring state: you keep those asylum seekers - we don't want them; Politicians playing to the sentiments, xenophobic or otherwise, of their own populations, rather than leading them to work together, to trust their neighbours and to share responsibility - in Europe!
The implementation of the Amsterdam Treaty and of the Commissions' Scoreboard will run into the sand if individual states are not willing to bring upwards some of their national standards of refugee protection.
If they keep clinging to their own systems as the best, the result may be that in a year or two a whole range of legal instruments will be adopted which dash our aspirations and make a farce of all the statements about human rights.
And, then, the countries of the EU may also impose those low standards on the accession countries, making them concentrate on border controls rather than on protection of those who desperately need it.
The months and next few years ahead are crucial. We have great hopes that governments will grab the opportunities provided by the Amsterdam Treaty
But, governments can only do this if they trust each other and work together. We call on you, members of national parliaments, and members of the European Parliament
to exert your leadership.
To explain to your populations why people flee persecution and why they need protection.
To be vigilant in monitoring and engaging with your governments, the Commission and the Council in the development of the European policies.
Please work with us and with the national NGOs in your countries as well as with UNHCR to protect refugees.
ECRE EU REPRESENTATIVE