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EU common asylum policy: Don't downgrade standards

EU common asylum policy should not downgrade standards – UN refugee chief

While lauding Europe’s efforts to develop a common asylum policy, the United Nations refugee agency’s top official told European leaders today that a consistent approach to dealing with millions of refugees should not end up downgrading asylum standards.

Speaking to members of the European Parliament in Brussels, António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also welcomed efforts by the European Union (EU) to help the global refugee agency strengthen third countries’ ability to protect and assist refugees.

“But this cannot be at the expense of Europe’s own responsibility to provide asylum to those who need it,” said Mr. Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the early 1980s. “Europe is…and must remain…a continent of asylum.”

Nearly three months ago, UNHCR warned that a controversial EU directive on asylum procedures adopted without discussion by the 25 EU Member States could lead to a downgrading of asylum standards. While UNHCR has supported Europe’s ongoing efforts to harmonize asylum procedures, the refugee agency is particularly concerned about a rule that let States designate “safe third countries” outside the EU. Asylum-seekers can be turned back to these States without even having had their claims heard in an EU Member State.

Mr. Guterres said he was pleased that the European Parliament now had a right of co-decision in asylum matters, which means an enhanced role for its Civil Liberties Committee. Previously, Parliament only held a consultative role in the process.

The EU Directive sets common minimum standards in several key areas, including the reception of asylum-seekers, asylum procedures and qualification for refugee status.

As a protection agency, UNHCR’s primary challenges are preserving asylum as population flows become increasingly complex, and stopping the increase in intolerance and exclusion in societies, Mr. Guterres, who assumed his post in June 2005, told the European officials.

“People who are in need of protection should not be forced to turn to human smugglers and traffickers to reach safety,” he said, adding that UNHCR recognized countries’ right to manage their borders and define their migration policies.

He said UNHCR is ready to help governments find innovative solutions so that their border controls and the ways they manage migration respects the protection of refugees and international law.

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