European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström said yesterday, during the official opening of the European Asylum Support Office (Easo) in Valletta, that while Europe has a long humanitarian tradition, the current practice in the implementation of the right of asylum shows that there are still wide divergences in the way member states deal with applications for international protection.
The new EU agency began some of its activities in November 2010, and is now fully operational. Easo was established with the aim of enhancing practical cooperation on asylum matters, and helping member states fulfil their European and international obligations to give protection to people in need.
The recruitment of the staff to the support office is approaching its final phase. The agency has already formed a pool of about 350 experts from all EU member states who are available in emergency situations. These teams provide interpreting services, information on countries of origin and know-how on managing asylum cases.
“The way asylum seekers and refugees are treated and their chances of obtaining protection can still differ, sometimes quite significantly, from one EU state to another. These disparities should be significantly reduced,” said Dr Malmström.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said the Maltese government has, for the past 18 months, been working closely and intensively with the European Commission, and later the Easo executive director, to prepare the necessary groundwork for the office to begin functioning within the established timeframe.
“This process was at times complex, however it was sustained by an ongoing spirit of cooperation and dialogue that brought us, slowly but surely, to the historic milestone we are celebrating today.”
Easo executive director Robert K. Visser explained that Easo is about support. Support within the framework of the Common European Asylum System. Support for all the member states of the European Union.
“As such Easo is an instrument of solidarity: Solidarity between the member states and solidarity within the European Union. But of course it is primarily about solidarity with the people who need protection.
“Yet there is something essential about solidarity. Solidarity needs trust. Trust within the European Union, trust between the member states. Without mutual trust it is difficult to give or to ask for solidarity. So, it is trust about common goals; trust about common standards. Support given is support well-spent. The key to trust is responsibility; responsibility of all of us.
Easo will work on a support system that provides common quality, common direction, common understanding – a support system that stimulates solidarity, trust and responsibility.
Justice and Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici, on his part, said the fact that Easo will seek to facilitate, coordinate and strengthen practical cooperation among member states on the many aspects of asylum, as well as to provide operational support to member states subjected to strong pressure on their asylum systems is of particular importance in the local asylum context.
Needless to say, Malta stands to benefit from these provisions, particularly when considering the renewed migratory flows being experienced this year as a result of the crisis in Libya. It is expected that Easo would take an active and leading role in future intra-EU resettlement initiatives, said Dr Mifsud Bonnici.
Dr Malmström noted that today is World Refugee Day, and this year the 60th anniversary of the signature of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention is being commemorated.
Over the years, Europe has offered protection, new hope and freedom to those in need of international protection, said Dr Malmström.
In recent months, conflict has come close to Europe’s borders, and large numbers of people have been displaced from Libya to Tunisia and Egypt, but also in some cases to European countries, including Malta.
Dr Malmström paid special tribute to the generosity of the countries receiving these refugees, to those supporting this humanitarian effort, as well as to the important work on the ground of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Tampere European Council of October 1999 reaffirmed the importance the union and its member states attach to absolute respect of the right to seek asylum and it agreed to work towards establishing a Common European Asylum System, based on the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention.
“We are actively working to complete this Common European System by 2012, the deadline set by the European Council when adopting the Stockholm Programme in December 2009,” said Dr Malmström.
“But in order to accomplish this in a complete and effective manner, we need both common laws and common practices. That is why, in the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, adopted in September 2008, the European Council called for a European Asylum Support Office to be created to support the implementation of the Common European Asylum System. With remarkable speed by EU standards, the regulation was finally adopted by the council and parliament just one year ago.”
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said that one of the fundamental aspects of the discussions between the Maltese government, the European Commission and Easo was the negotiation of the Seat Agreement, which governs the relationship between the Government of Malta and the office, and sets the relevant parameters for the setting up and running of this new EU agency.
The agency is housed in a state-of-the-art building overlooking Grand Harbour, and the European Commission increased the investment being made by a further €2.6million in an additional floor of the building, increasing the available office space to some 3,700 square metres.
“In part as a result of the recent upheaval in Libya, Malta today hosts some 2,700 people entitled to international protection. Proportionately, we are carrying a larger burden than any other member state.
“But the issue is not only a question of the burden we are carrying. The size of the country, of our population and, above all, of our labour market ensures that we cannot provide a future for more than a few of these deserving persons.”
Dr Gonzi said these geo-social realities are of the utmost relevance and importance, since affording international protection is ultimately about integration, just as much as it is about the asylum determination process.