Interview with António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Eurasylum: In 2009, with nearly 232,000 claims - a 7% increase over 2008 - most asylum applications in the industrialised world were lodged in Western Europe. The number of unaccompanied and separated children applying for asylum, particularly from Afghanistan, was also significant. Developing countries, however, remain host to four-fifths of the world’s refugees. Can you guide us through some of the key on-going trends regarding asylum applications and refugee protection in the European Union?
António Guterres: It is critically important to look at these questions from a global perspective. According to UNHCR’s figures, which differ slightly from those of Eurostat for technical reasons, there were 245,000 asylum applications lodged in the 27 Member States of the European Union in 2009. Ten years earlier, when the EU had just 15 Member States, the total was around 400,000. So the overall trend is one of declining numbers in Europe. If this reflects a diminished need for refugee protection, it is a positive development. But if it reflects increased difficulties for refugees to reach safety, it is a cause for concern. The ongoing conflicts, serious human rights situations and other problems which cause people to flee from their homes in many parts of the world are such that it is hard to see that the need for asylum might have diminished. This would tend to suggest rather that there may be problems of access to the procedures and protection to which many of these people are entitled.
The reality is that most refugees remain in their regions of origin. At the end of 2009, fully 80% of the world’s refugees were hosted by developing countries. It is striking that in 2009, South Africa alone received more than 222,000 asylum applications – nearly as many as the EU-27! But there are some trends in Europe which are disturbing. One is that it is ever more difficult for people seeking protection to reach the territory of countries where they can ask for it. Particularly for asylum-seekers travelling by sea, we have seen the introduction of policies and practices which tend to treat these people as a threat, rather than recognizing that among them there may be many who are themselves at risk and who need international protection. I do not dispute the right of countries to control their borders, but this must be done in a way which is sensitive to the needs of people seeking protection.
Another trend is that of growing numbers of unaccompanied children on the move. This is no doubt linked to the growing difficulty of gaining access to Europe. Families in difficult situations often seek to send one member to a safe place, in the hope of securing the family’s – or at least that individual’s - future. Under these circumstances, they may well perceive that a young person will have greater chances of success. The tragedy is of course that these children face unspeakable risks and hardships en route. Afghan youngsters are a case in point. In Europe last year there were roughly 15,000 asylum applications filed by unaccompanied children. Forty per cent of them were Afghans. We worry that there may be even more children who for a variety of reasons don’t apply for asylum. Those who live ‘under the radar screen’ are obviously even more vulnerable than those who are registered and counted.
Overall the biggest problems we face in Europe, as in many other parts of the world, relate to the increasingly complex nature of migratory flows. The world is changing, and both UNHCR and States need to adapt to new trends in displacement. It is no longer possible to assume that displacement or movements can be readily categorized as either voluntary or forced. Today’s global megatrends – population growth, urbanization, climate change, competition for scarce resources – interact in a multiplicity of ways that compel many people to leave their homes, including by exacerbating conflict. Responding effectively to the needs of people on the move today is a tremendous challenge. This is especially the case with respect to individuals who do not fall within the existing definition of a refugee under international law, but who nonetheless may need protection.
Eurasylum: In a statement you delivered at the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs, on 15 July 2010 in Brussels, you observed that Eurostat’s asylum figures suggested that the EU was still a long way from achieving the objectives of a Common European Asylum System. For example, the rate of recognition of Somali asylum applicants in EU Member States varied in 2009 between 4% and 93%. The recognition rate for Iraqi asylum seekers in the two EU countries receiving the largest number of applications was 66% and 27% respectively. Similarly, for the EU country receiving the largest number of Afghan asylum applications, the recognition rate was 44%, while the recognition rate in the country receiving the next largest number of applications was just 1%. You further remarked that there were still vast differences in conditions of reception and that this situation called for a dual approach, consisting of both intensified practical co-operation and the improvement of the legislative framework. Can you describe, briefly, the key tenets of this dual approach?
António Guterres: More than ten years ago, European Union leaders committed themselves to the establishment of a Common European Asylum System, in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention and other international norms. The very fact that 27 countries with different legal systems, different geographical perspectives, and different traditions and experiences with refugees would agree to align their laws and practices in an area as sensitive as asylum is nothing short of revolutionary. The underlying idea was that persons in need of protection should be able to find protection, and would be treated in the same way, in each and every EU country. Since then, a lot has been done on the legislative level. But when one looks at the practice of the EU countries, one sees that there are still tremendous divergences.
The EU has advanced international refugee law by adopting binding legal instruments in areas which have not previously been codified in international or regional law: temporary protection, reception of asylum-seekers and asylum procedures. By establishing a legal framework for subsidiary protection – for people at risk of torture, death penalty or indiscriminate violence, for example - in the Qualification Directive, the EU addressed a long-standing protection gap. But there are many areas in which the legislative framework still needs improvement. This includes the need for better regulation of detention for asylum-seekers – in a context where convicted criminals and people with no legal permission to remain in the EU have far better safeguards and limits when detained than asylum-seekers. We know that some States are resisting further changes to the EU laws. However, we are convinced that improved legislative standards are in the interest of all.
At the practical level, it is absolutely clear that more needs to be done to ensure implementation of the agreed standards. We hope that the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office will help in this respect. Right now, implementation varies widely. For instance, although the Reception Conditions Directive requires states to “ensure that material reception conditions are available to applicants”, in Greece, to cite just one example, there are only around 800 places in reception centres, while last year there were 16,000 new asylum applications.
Even more serious is the fact that the outcome of asylum applications varies tremendously from country to country, even for asylum-seekers of the same nationality and who present similar claims. And we note with concern that some countries seem to resort to other forms of protection under EU or national law, rather than granting refugee status under the 1951 Convention to people who should qualify for it.
Earlier this year we published the results of our research into the application of the EU Asylum Procedures Directive in 12 Member States. We examined more than 1,000 asylum decisions, attended hundreds of interviews, and spoke with authorities, lawyers and NGOs, as well as with asylum-seekers themselves. The research showed very clearly that the way in which asylum procedures are carried out still differs considerably. For instance, of the 12 countries surveyed, six have national legislation permitting the designation of “safe” countries of origin. Three had established lists of such “safe” countries, which altogether listed 78 countries as “safe” – meaning that they could be presumed not generally to produce refugees. But only one country – Ghana – appeared on all three lists, and in one country it was listed as “safe” only for men.
In short, it is obvious that to remedy these deficiencies we need to work on both levels at once – the practical and the legislative tracks.
Eurasylum: In 2009, resettlement to the EU increased both in percentage terms and in the number of countries engaged in it. However, the EU only accounted for 8% of the refugees resettled worldwide. Parallel to this, the EU institutions, and in particular the Belgian Presidency in July-December 2010, have continued to place special emphasis on the development of intra-EU solidarity and responsibility sharing, particularly through the formulation of an intra-EU relocation scheme for protection beneficiaries. What are your views on the establishment of such a relocation programme and its possible effects on resettlement between third countries and the EU?
António Guterres: We have indeed encouraged EU countries to make a clear distinction between resettlement activities and intra-EU relocation. Through intra-EU relocation, EU Member States can demonstrate their solidarity with each other. It is a way of addressing imbalances which can arise from the implementation of the Dublin II Regulation, which allocates responsibility for examining asylum claims largely on the basis of geography. As a result, certain Member States are held responsible for a disproportionate number of claimants. Over time, however, I have little doubt that the EU will need to re-think this approach to the allocation of responsibility, and will need to develop an effective responsibility-sharing mechanism.
Resettlement, in contrast, is a way in which EU Member States can demonstrate their solidarity with countries located outside the European Union, and in particular with countries which receive large numbers of refugees. Worldwide, we estimate that around one in ten refugees is in need of resettlement. At present, however, we are only able to resettle around one out of every hundred refugees. Clearly we need more commitment to resettlement.
A number of Member States have offered resettlement places for many years. At the time of the Vietnamese boat people crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, tens of thousands of refugees found new homes in Europe. However, when the number of asylum applicants in Europe started to rise, the willingness to resettle refugees diminished, and by the 1990s, only a few European countries were still engaging in resettlement. Today, with relatively low numbers of asylum applicants, we think there should be scope for Europe to provide resettlement to a much larger number of refugees.
Eurasylum: Next year UNHCR will mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Can you highlight some of key activities planned on this occasion and the ways in which you would like the EU institutions and member states to be involved in such celebrations?
António Guterres: Next year’s commemoration of these two important anniversaries will offer an occasion to broaden and renew support for the protection of refugees and of stateless persons. We will start this reflection already in December of this year with a Dialogue on Protection Challenges which will focus on how to ensure protection for people who do not fit within the existing definition of a refugee. Indeed, addressing and filling protection gaps will be a constant theme of the commemorations year. At EU level, we intend to promote examination of protection gaps with respect to persons fleeing generalized or indiscriminate violence. Our research in the EU has revealed very different, and not always adequate, approaches in these cases.
We also want to use this occasion to raise awareness of the situation of people who are stateless. There may be as many as 12 million people around the world without an effective nationality, yet most people – and many governments – know little about this phenomenon. It is also not widely known that UNHCR is not only the UN’s refugee agency, but that we also have a mandate to work to reduce statelessness, and to protect the rights of stateless people.
The commemorations year will end in December 2011 with a Ministerial meeting. At that meeting I will invite participating States and organizations to outline the steps they pledge to take to ensure protection for those who need it, and to improve the quality of that protection. I hope that these pledges will be part of a new, broad-based protection compact. In particular, I would like to see many more States accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. In that context I would point out that not all EU Member States have ratified the statelessness conventions – far from it. The EU could set a leading example by ensuring that all Member States accede to these two important instruments.
Beyond ratifications, however, I am convinced that the EU has a further special role to play in the context of the commemorations. This role emerges from the fact that the 1951 Convention was born in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. Since then, from the Cold War through decolonization and the end of the bipolar world, refugee protection has remained an enduring European value. At a time when asylum is under threat in many parts of the world, we want to strengthen public and political awareness of the need to address the challenges created by forced displacement – above all, those faced by the refugees and displaced people themselves. I will look to the EU to lead the way, by reaffirming its commitment, in word and in deed, to the core values of international protection.