Brussels, 16 December 2015. Ahead of their meeting on 17 and 18 December, ECRE calls on European leaders to provide new impetus to the formation of a European asylum and migration policy that:
(i) fully respects the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement;
(ii) creates legal channels for persons fleeing persecution and conflict to access protection in the EU; and
(iii) is based on solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility within the EU and with countries in the region.
Notwithstanding efforts made to increase search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean, the number of persons dying at sea trying to reach safety in the EU remains unacceptably high. To date, UNHCR estimates that over 3600 persons have lost their lives in 2015 in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean, a number greater than in 2014. This worrying trend calls for further steps to enhance and strengthen search and rescue capacity and operations at sea at EU level. Moreover, the continuing tragedies at sea again point to the urgency of opening safe and legal channels for persons fleeing persecution and conflict. In the absence of such legal channels, refugees have no other option than to undertake life-threatening journeys and make use of smugglers in order to enter the EU territory to find protection. This vicious circle can only be broken by making safe and legal channels a central component of the EU’s asylum and migration policy.
The EU and its Member States should first and foremost commit to an ambitious and credible resettlement and humanitarian admission programme, increasing significantly the current number of places offered by EU Member States. In this regard the newly proposed voluntary humanitarian admission programme from Turkey can hopefully relaunch the discussion at EU level. However, it is important to ensure that a new EU initiative in this field serves the objective of providing access to protection and sustainable solutions for the individuals in need. ECRE is concerned that in the proposed recommendation on a voluntary humanitarian admission scheme from Turkey Member States’ commitments are made conditional on Turkey’s performance in preventing irregular migration towards the EU. Such a quid pro quo risks framing resettlement not as a durable solution for people nor a safe and legal access channel to save human lives and grant protection, but only as a reward to Turkey in exchange for its “efficient” border management. Moreover, ECRE also calls on the EU and its Member States to insist that EU funds for refugees provided under the EU-Turkey Agreement be used in an open and transparent manner, with full accountability to the EU and its taxpayers.
Resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes should be implemented as solidarity and safe access tools, not as political bargaining chips and a reward for stricter border controls. Such an approach also risks encouraging the use of detention by Turkey under the pretext of honouring its commitments to reduce irregular migration, thereby triggering serious human rights violations as have already been documented by Amnesty International in its most recent report.
A comprehensive approach is needed to ensure that the resettlement needs for the entire region are properly addressed in close cooperation with UNHCR, and that the beneficiaries of such a programme are granted refugee status rather than more temporary statuses that delay integration into the host Member State. It is important that resettlement programme criteria prioritise protection needs, vulnerabilities and family ties, while also allowing for a broad and inclusive programme.
Efforts to open safe and legal channels, however, should not be limited solely to resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes. In addition, Member States should make use of the variety of instruments at their disposal to enhance safe and legal access of refugees to the EU territory, such as the issuing of humanitarian visas for protection reasons, a more flexible application of family reunification rules or the use of labour and student mobility schemes.
The increased focus on strengthening controls at the EU’s external borders should not be at the expense of the protection of human rights, including the principle of non-refoulement, nor the possibility to exercise the right to asylum at the land, sea or air border for those arriving spontaneously. In this regard, ECRE is concerned that the creation of hotspots in Italy and Greece is characterised by legal ambiguity, a lack of transparency and lack of access to information and legal assistance, undermining effective access to the asylum procedure. The increase of resources for Frontex should be matched by a significant increase of resources for EASO, UNHCR and NGOs to assist with the provision of timely and accurate information about the possibility to apply for international protection and legal assistance.
Also the Commission’s proposal for a European Border and Coast Guard raises a number of questions from a fundamental rights perspective. Conferring additional powers to an EU Borders and Coast Guard Agency in the area of external border controls, return and cooperation with third countries goes hand in hand with increased accountability for preventing and addressing human rights violations.
ECRE calls on European leaders to urgently address the solidarity crisis within the EU and ensure that prior commitments to enhance solidarity with those Member States facing the biggest challenges are honoured and implemented in practice. At the same time, further steps are necessary in light of the continuing pressure on countries such as Italy and Greece, as well as so-called destination States. Given the slow pace with which the relocation decisions are being implemented, steps should be taken to speed up the process, while revision of current eligibility criteria should be considered in order to enhance its effectiveness.
Finally, ECRE calls on European leaders to strongly condemn any discourse demonising as potential terrorists those escaping war and conflict. Refugees arriving in Europe are fleeing the same extremism and violence as seen in the Paris attacks. As ECRE stated in the aftermath of the Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks, scapegoating refugees will not defeat terrorism but will only fuel further discrimination and xenophobia.
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