Dr. Christopher Hein
Director of the Italian Council for Refugees (CIR); former Chair of the
Executive Committee of ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exiles)
Assessing the benefits and challenges of the European Refugee Fund and
related EU asylum policy initiatives from an NGO perspective
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: The European Refugee Fund, in its current form, is due to come to an end in December 2004. What, in your opinion, have been the greatest benefits, and the possible limitations, in implementing ERF actions in the field of reception, integration and voluntary repatriation, both for the beneficiary NGOs and the target groups in the EU?
Ü Dr. Christopher Hein: The very fact that a European Refugee Fund was established has been of critical importance to the implementation of the old idea of responsibility and burden-sharing among EU member states. A similarinstrument of solidarity, as the European Commission has termed it, was also to emerge from the Directive on temporary protection however, in this case, a mechanism of financial balancing has only been announced and to date has yet to be implemented. The ERF, in turn, can now rely on four years of practical experience as a valuable mechanism of financial solidarity and of Europe-wide support for services in favour of refugees and asylum seekers.
During this period, a large number of transnational, national and local projects were made possible through the Fund. Concrete improvements in reception conditions and integration measures were witnessed, as was reported, inter alia, at the European Conference on the ERF at the end of October 2003. On the other hand, positive results relating to actions on repatriation may have been less evident.
Within the framework of the above-mentioned ERF Conference in 2003, and as a contribution to the mid-term evaluation of the ERF that was conducted last year, ECRE issued an important document highlighting the shortcomings of the system. Firstly, it indicated that the budget allocation of EUR 216 million over a period of five years was largely inadequate to provide for the increasing needs for support measures in favour of refugees and asylum seekers. Secondly, concern was expressed about the system of allocation of resources, which has given priority to countries receiving large numbers of asylum seekers and relying on more consolidated asylum systems and a long asylum tradition. As a result, countries that may have had a more limited number of asylum seekers – a circumstance that often goes hand in hand with a less developed asylum tradition, particularly as regards integration – were given insufficient opportunities to build capacity and develop their infrastructure in the field of asylum. Whilst welcoming decentralisation in the management of the Fund and the prerogatives given to national Governments, a greater central steering function for the European Commission would have avoided discrepancies in the way in which individual Governments have used the ERF resources. Similarly, whilst recognising that NGOs in general have benefited from the Fund in their day-to-day work for refugees, they too could have had a greater involvement in the overall strategic planning and the setting of priorities within the ERF.
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: More broadly, the Tampere I mandate had foreseen that a first set of standards and measures related to the formation of a common European asylum system would be established by May 2004. What is your assessment of the rate of adoption and implementation of new legal/policy instruments in the field of asylum, and how are these already impacting, or will be likely to impact, on national asylum and protection systems in the EU?
Ü Dr. Christopher Hein: NGOs from throughout Europe have been largely enthusiastic about the conclusions of the Tampere Extraordinary European Council in 1999 in terms of its contents, language and spirit. However, at the end of the five-year period established by the Amsterdam Treaty, there is no enthusiasm left at all and the results of the first phase of harmonisation of asylum policies appear to be poor. Whilst the rate of adoption of European legal instruments related to the implementation of the Amsterdam Treaty is quite impressive in quantitative terms, it is not so in qualitative terms. The only relative degree of satisfaction relates to the adoption of the initial set of instruments, i.e. the European Refugee Fund and the Directives on temporary protection. The subsequent process that began after September 11th, and particularly during the Seville Council, appears to have been increasingly distant from the Tampere Conclusions. I refer here to two different aspects: one is the level of protection guaranties and international standards; the other is the degree of willingness of the Council, and hence of the individual Governments, to transfer decision-making powers to the European institutions.
The many ways in which national legislation can circumvent the Directives have enabled member states to maintain levels of national law which are below the standards established within the Community. This is in addition to the various curtailing mechanisms foreseen in the Directives, which again point to the fact that, ultimately, national self-interest has prevailed. The controversial debates that unfolded during the last phase of finalisation of the Directives on asylum procedures, on the refugee definition and on subsidiary protection are eloquent examples in this respect. The Directive on minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, as well as the Directive on family reunification, have also been indicative: the fear that had frequently been expressed by NGOs and Refugee Community Organisations that harmonisation would occur at the lowest common denominator has proved to be well-founded.
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: What, in your opinion, should be the key priorities to be assigned to the Tampere II mandate and the proposed ERF II instrument covering the period 2005-2010?
Ü Dr. Christopher Hein: The Tampere Conclusions had already foreseen a second phase which would lead to the establishment of the common European asylum system. This is, however, a concept that is very different from that of harmonisation or the establishment of minimum conditions. A common European asylum system should include, ultimately, a common asylum procedure with an appeal mechanism assigned to a European judiciary body, as well as reception conditions on the same level and with similar characteristics in all 25 member states.
Key priorities related to the Tampere II mandate would include the adoption of the European Constitution, including articles II-18 and III-167 on the right to asylum; and the communitarisation of legislation on asylum, in particular as regards majority voting in the Council, co-decision powers for the European Parliament and exclusive right of initiative for the European Commission. Another priority would relate to the freedom of movement and of establishment for recognised refugees and persons benefiting from subsidiary protection. This, in turn, would make the Dublin II Regulation on the determination of the member state responsible for the examination of an asylum request almost superfluous, not least since the application of this Regulation has often been harmful to asylum seekers and their families. The secondary irregular movement of asylum seekers among member states would diminish drastically once a common European asylum system and freedom of movement for recognised refugees and persons benefiting from subsidiary protection are in place.
Regarding, more specifically, the second phase of the ERF, it appears that the Commission has agreed to most of the proposals crafted by ECRE and other NGOs. This includes, most importantly, a longer project cycle period, up to three years; an increase in the level of funds available overall and an increase in the percentage of funds allocated to transnational projects; a greater steering function for the European Commission; and a major role for NGOs in strategic planning. In terms of substance, the Fund should focus more on integration, a concept that should be understood as including the process starting from the arrival of an asylum seeker on EU territory. The repatriation part of the Fund should be kept out of the ERF and should be incorporated into the proposed European Return Fund. The second phase of the ERF should provide concrete tools to the member states for the implementation of the asylum directives and give more support to those countries that may face greater difficulties in providing adequate services to asylum seekers and refugees, including, but not only, the new member states.