Monday, 11 April 2016

The Syrian refugee crisis: the end of the Common European Asylum System?

The European Union has endeavoured to streamline asylum policy throughout the Union through the creation of a Common European Asylum System. This system is currently under great strain due to the surge of refugees and migrants entering the territory of the European Union in large part due to the ongoing conflict in Syria. Consequently, discussions have taken place regarding the viability of the CEAS, with some researchers deeming these discussions to have ‘dominated the EU agenda during 2014-2015’. Many have claimed that the operation of the CEAS is not viable. 

However, the magnitude of the current refugee crisis, and the consequent responses to it, demonstrate a pressing need for Union-wide operational instruments with regards to the reception and managing of asylum seekers and migrants. In other words, a Common European Asylum System is still imperative to the optimal functioning of the asylum systems in the EU Member States, albeit not in its in current state.

The situation under CEAS

Perhaps the most significant part of the CEAS is the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that an asylum seeker must remain in the Member State in which they were initially registered in order to have their application processed. In 2010, 20 years after the implementation of the Dublin regime, the European Asylum Support Office was established in an attempt to ease such pressures. Its role was envisioned to ‘facilitate, coordinate and strengthen practical cooperation among Member States on the many aspects of asylum’ under the umbrella of the CEAS. However, in order to invoke the assistance of EASO a Member State must request it, and the costs of this assistance will be divided equally between the relevant Member State and EASO, drastically diminishing its appeal.

The Syrian refugee crisis

Over 507,000 refugees from Syria entered Europe between April 2011 and September 2015. In 2014, Syrian refugees represented nearly 20% of the total number of refugees entering Europe. The routes of the refugees and migrants entering Europe are a requisite consideration in this regard. In 2014, approximately 219,000 migrants entered Europe through one of the many Mediterranean sea routes. In 2015 this number had increased to over 690,000, of which 53% were Syrians. The vast majority of those migrating through the sea routes have arrived in Greece or Italy, but crucially, there has been a significant shift in the initial country of arrival: in 2014 the vast majority of arrivals by sea had arrived in Italy, whereas in 2015 over 548,000 of the stated 690,000 arrived in Greece. This is a result of the increase in the amount of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe. As the Dublin Regulation provides that an asylum seeker must remain in the Member State in which they lodged their initial application, this has resulted in a particular strain on the reception of migrants and asylum seekers in these peripheral Member States.

Article 17 of the Dublin III Regulation, the ‘sovereignty clause’, provides that a Member State ‘may decide to examine an application’ should they wish to. In 2013, Sweden became the first country to announce they would offer permanent residency to any Syrian refugee who made it there. Germany announced in August of 2015 that they would derogate from the Dublin Regulation on the basis of the provision in Article 17 in relation to Syrian refugees. The Czech Republic shortly followed suit, announcing they would not detain Syrians enroute to Germany. Germany did, however, rather quickly modify their announcement, reinstating controls at German borders.

Both Italy and Greece have received support from EASO in their efforts to cope in the current situation, and this provision of support has been renewed and extended following their initial commencement for both countries. Further, on 27 May 2015 the European Commission presented a legislative proposal establishing certain provisional measures in order to aid Italy and Greece with regards to the reception of asylum seekers and migrants. This was adopted in September of 2015, and declared that 24 000 asylum applicants from Italy as well as 16 000 applicants from Greece would be relocated to other Member States. These provisions will apply until September 2017. This is arguably a step towards rectifying the inadequacies of the Dublin Regulation, but nevertheless constitutes a drop in the ocean, considering the total amount of Mediterranean refugees reached over 1,000,000 in 2015.

EASO Director José Carreira in Lesvos

Also an important consideration in this regard are cases like M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece and Tarakhel v. Switzerland, brought before the European Court of Human Rights. These held that the return of refugees to certain countries, in spite of the state of legislation under the Dublin Regulation, may be halted on human rights grounds. Furthermore, these cases concerned the return of refugees to, respectively, Greece and Italy. This is a clear indicator that the law under the CEAS is not being adhered to. The cause of this appears to be the current organisation of the Dublin Regulation, as the level of burden-sharing is insufficient in order to manage such an extreme situation as the current migratory influx.

The end of CEAS?

Policy harmonisation is not enough to ensure the functioning of CEAS. The fluctuation in the amount of asylum seekers and migrants, their countries of origin, and accordingly, their migratory routes is evident of this. Consequently, integration of asylum policies in the Member States of a rather large scope is required in order to ensure the success of CEAS. This, coupled with further measures ensuring a more equal distribution of the burden is, however, politically sensitive territory and thus poses great challenges to the policy-makers. Discussions regarding fairer distribution of the burden of asylum seekers have been taking place since the 1990s, and as stated above, some of this has been eased by certain provisional measures. However, studies have concluded that between 15 to 40 percent of asylum applications would need to be transferred between Member States in order to ensure a fair distribution. Some scholars have found this to be the only feasible method in which the cost and responsibilities of the reception of asylum seekers can be fairly and equally distributed.

The comprehensiveness required in order to facilitate and effectively manage the current migratory influx might, in fact, indicate the important, perhaps necessary, role of the CEAS. Nevertheless, a shift is required in its focus as well as its operational methods in order to achieve its goals. 

In conclusion

The Syrian refugee crisis is not likely to be the end of the CEAS. However, policy harmonisation as the primary operational instrument for the CEAS is insufficient under the current migratory influx. The extent of this influx instead demonstrates the need for a more comprehensive and integrated system in order to properly manage it in a Union-wide sense. Further, the effectiveness of the role of EASO in assisting the operation of the CEAS is severely restricted as a result of the arrangement of its funding and the need for its presence to be formally requested. The CEAS and EASO have the potentiality of holding great value to the EU and to the functioning of asylum systems in its Member States. However, unless reform is achieved, this may very well spell the end for a common asylum policy for the EU altogether.

Monday, 4 April 2016

EASO Expands Access to Country of Origin Information

EASO have recently announced that its COI Portal will now be made accessible to the general public. Rendering the Portal available for practitioners and civil society organisations allows for greater transparency within the field and specifically for the work of EASO and of MS as they process and decide on asylum applications. 

It seems that the Portal’s technology will be improved and updated: the Beta version aims to have a better search facility with a more interactive and easy to use page. It will be compatible with different sources and will cater for the use of different languages. It aims to also provide more English language abstracts for documents which are not in English, allowing more users to easily identify document content.


You can access the Portal here and you may also register. Registration should eventually lead to personal notifications related to your specific area of interest.

We welcome the news that the Portal will be open to practitioners and actors operating outside the MS context. Together with many colleagues active in providing legal support to asylum-seekers, we have often insisted with EASO that principles of natural justice, particularly the right to an effective remedy - enshrined in EU law - require applicants (and their legal representatives) to have access to those elements on which decisions in their regard are taken. This includes COI. It is only with such access can applicants understand and, where relevant, challenge the basis of their asylum decisions.

We also believe in the value of a transparent Portal that allows individuals or organisations to examine the content and accuracy of the information used by MS in assessing asylum applications.  

Monday, 1 February 2016

Draft Report on the situation in the Mediterranean: Is EASO becoming the new "principal coordinator of the CEAS"?

On the 18th of January 2016 Members of the European Parliament: Roberta Metsola (EPP) and Cécile Kyenge (S&D) delivered a report on “the situation in the Mediterranean and the need for a holistic EU approach to migration” where they submitted their recommendations in relation to migration and border management.

This report was a result of the Resolution ((2014/2097)(RSP)), where the European Parliament requested the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs to deliver a report which would touch upon a variety of issues regarding migration, listed below:

  • Article 80 - Solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, including search and rescue obligations;
  • Tackling criminal smuggling, trafficking and labor exploitation of irregular migrants;
  • Border management and visa-policy, including the role of Frontex and other relevant Agencies;
  • Developing safe and lawful routes for asylum seekers and refugees into the EU including the Union resettlement policy and corresponding integration policies;
  • The strategy on cooperation with third countries, in particular on regional protection programmes, resettlement, returns and to address the root causes of migration;
  • Developing adequate legal economic migration channels;
  • Analysis on how Home Affairs funds are spent in migration & development context, including emergency funds;
  • And last but certainly not least, the effective implementation of the CEAS, including the role of European Asylum Support Office (EASO).

Sections 58 and 59 of the report are dedicated on recommendations on the improvement of EASO. Section 58 introduces the possible development of EASO as the “principal coordinator of the CEAS”. Principal coordinator” is an extremely interesting term, especially for a European agency that is relatively new and the competences of which have not always been crystal clear. It must be underlined that there is no definition or further analysis of this term, although the report states that “EASO needs to develop from a collection of experts from Member States into a fully-fledged Union Agency providing operational support to Member States and at the external borders”. It therefore becomes clear that the report underlines the need for a more proactive agency approach largely to support the Member States operationally.

We wonder, in particular, how the report understands the term ‘principal coordinator’ in the context of EASO’s relationship with the Commission and whether the MEPs believe EASO should become an agency primarily concerned with ground support. We’ve often noted this tension in EASO’s mandate, and highlighted that whilst we believe in the importance of operational support to struggling Member States, we also stress that EASO has far more potential and utility in addressing the lack of harmonisation of the standards stipulated in CEAS. We firmly believe that EASO should not become an operational crutch for struggling Member States, but that it should be far more proactive in supporting the creation and implementation of a vision for CEAS and for refugees coming to and living in the EU.

As expected, the report also touched upon the the budgetary limitation in relation to relocation, resettlement and the external dimension. The writers highlight that a mere EUR 30,000 will not suffice under the current circumstances, especially in view of EASO’s heavy involvement in relocation. The report specifies that EASO will not be able to live up to expectations in its current form. It also identifies lack of human resources as one of the core reasons. Interestingly, the report clarifies that this is an issue that must be resolved not only in the short term but also in the long term.


After contacting MEP Roberta Metsola, she stated that:
"There is no quick fix to migration. We need to all move from our entrenched ideological towers, look at every single aspect of the issue and come up with an all-encompassing plan that looks at all the short, medium and long-term options available.

But coming up with a plan on paper is not enough, we must have something that works in practice and does not just serve to grab a few headlines before sitting on a shelf to gather dust. This is what we have tried to do with this report - we are determined to plot the political direction for future action on this issue. It simply cannot wait."

Overall, said report stresses that EASO has the capacity to have a very important role with regards to CEAS, however it can only do so if certain changes are made. It identifies the budgetary increase as one of the main ways to achieve that result, however it does not give clear and specific guidelines on how this can be achieved. On the other hand, one could argue that this report may be a shallow but an important step forward in order to resolve some of the current migration issues that the EU is facing.

Monday, 25 January 2016

A new EASO Executive Director

Mr. José Carreira was elected Executive Director of EASO at the Agency's 20th Management Board Meeting.

Newly re-elected Chairman of the Management Board, Mag Wolfgang Taucher, and Mr. José Carreira
Source: EASO

Mr. Carreira has acted as EASO’s Executive Director ad interim since November 2015, following the resignation of Dr. Robert Visser in October. Dr. Visser’s resignation was described as ‘surprising’, and having left the European Commission ‘in an awkward position’.

Mr. Carreira, a Portuguese national, was previously EASO’s Head of Administration. Before this, he was Director of FRONTEX’s Administration Division. He has also contributed in numerous United Nations humanitarian relief operations in Europe, Africa and Asia.

At the 2015 Consultative Forum Mr. Carreira stated that he “aim[s] to make EASO more operational and better equipped to quickly respond to the changing reality on the ground”.

EASO Spokesperson Jean-Pierre Schembri stated over the weekend:

Mr Carreira was elected as the EASO Executive Director yesterday by the Management Board. One of his main objectives is to enable the agency to respond to the new operational challenges which have arisen with the creation of the hotspots and the important role of EASO in the EU relocation programme. Mr Carreira has also stated, in various occasions, that he wants to make the agency more open and accessible in 2016 and to be in closer contact with civil society. In this context, in the coming weeks, he intends to hold a number of bilateral meetings with members of civil society, including Aditus.

We welcome Mr. Carreira, and his stated efforts at pursuing a more open and accessible discourse policy within the Agency.

Friday, 8 January 2016

EASO Consultative Forum 2015 - Part II

This post is a follow up to our previous post on this year's Consultative Forum plenary meeting.

Last year's Consultative Forum plenary meeting
Source: EASO

Daphné Bouteillet-Paquet, Senior Legal Officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, has provided us with an inside recap of the discussions and presentations that took place:

Need for a change in the consultation process
A low level of participation is to be noticed this year (in total 50 participants but mainly Maltese based administrations, embassies, UNHCR, NGOs and EASO/ EC staff members). Discussions were held in relation to the format and how to better involved NGOs and Marc Camillieri suggested to move towards thematic consultations to be held on the basis of mini-CF. NGOs can suggest a list of topics to be discussed and it would be good to reflect on this proposal. Hot spots and Relocation is the obvious one to take stock of on-going developments and establish a more substantial dialogue (see below).  I would also think that the situation of children deserves more discussion and reflection beyond the technical meetings organised by EASO on age assessment and BIC. Please let me know if you have any other brilliant thought.

Hotspots and Relocation (Round Table 1)
The panel discussion were informative as far as it comes to the description of huge difficulties and challenges faced both by the Greek and the Italian administration, representatives of these countries and UNHCR insisted on the huge resources mobilized to relocate respectively 129 and 30 cases. The EC seemed to be under huge political  pressure.  The humanitarian situation in Lesbos were discussed at length but there was no real outcome in relation to the discussions on how NGOs should be involved/ selection process/ transparency of EASO activities. Not surprisingly, some NGos positioned themselves as a partner while others see themselves as independent watchdog. It is very difficult to predict how things will evolve and how ECRE should position itself in relation to the future of Dublin system. You have probably seen latest political development with Donald Tusk calling for the end of relocation programmes in interviews with 6 European newspapers, whilst on the same day Le Soir and Le Monde  released information about a letter sent by EC Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis to President Juncker after his visit to Lesbos on 19th November where he describes the humanitarian disaster happening there and deplores the lack of coordinated EU response. The scenario of  a mini-Schengen excluding Greece will be debated  by the European Council on 17 and 18/12.

Western Balkans (Round Table 2)
EC insisted to look at WB both as Safe Countries of Origin and as (future) countries of destination. EASO confirmed the discrepancies in recognition rates of asylum seekers coming from WB and MS have been asked to provide very detailed information about their recognition practice, COI and type of protection granted. The EC acknowledged their lack of vision in the ENLARG process as access to international protection was not seen as a priority for the past 10 years and  acknowledged a huge challenge in terms of capacity building (see below information on training modules). Both IOM and iCMC provided very detailed pictures of the humanitarian situation in the WB and dramatic prospects with the winter approaching.

Involvement of NGOs in annual publications (Round Table 3)
NGOs suggested more targeted questionnaires in order to avoid that consultation end up in a resources intensive frustration exercise. We also suggested that EASO should build more links with grass roots NGOs and publish the list of experts/organizations  consulted on the different topics in order to have entry point to EASO. In view of the finalization of the work plan 2016, we provided input on  the methodology for  Information System and on COI activities based on the inputs provided by the Dutch Refugee Council. We got no answer from EASO on these two specific issues. On the AR, we raised issues of methodology but we had little feedback  -  EASO agreed on the poor quality of their AR but insisted that this should be seen as a compromise rather than as a perfect tool.

EASO Spokesperson Jean-Pierre Schembri stated after the conclusion of the Forum:

This year’s Consultative Forum was indeed a special one. This year we commemorated the 5 year anniversary of EASO and this was also the 5th Consultative Forum Plenary Meeting organized by EASO. This was therefore the right time to reflect on the past and think ahead together to sketch a common path on how we deal with the new challenges in the short, medium and long term.

We now plan to make EASO more open and accessible. We have already started enhancing our communications tools, and now we are very active on social media and on the net. Moreover, we truly believe that in the current asylum situation, consultation is not an option but a necessity. Many NGOs, and other organisations, have unique knowledge and experience on the ground, and we cannot afford not to make the best use of it.

We would like to thank
Daphné and Jean-Pierre for their contributions and insights.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

EASO Consultative Forum 2015 - Part I

EASO Consultative Forum 2015

On November 30th the European Asylum Support Office held its 5th annual Consultative Forum. The 2015 Consultative Forum followed shortly after the departure of EASO’s Executive Director Robert Visser, an event described as ‘surprising’, and having left the European Commission ‘in an awkward position’.

Current Executive Director ad interim, Mr José Carreira, stated at the Forum:
“This year’s forum comes at a very important time. With over 1 million asylum applicants since the beginning of this year and with the implementation of the Migration agenda, we need to be prepared to answer to the additional demands from Member States and help relieve the pressure on their asylum systems. I aim to make EASO more operational and better equipped to quickly respond to the changing reality on the ground. In this context, consultation with civil society is not an option but a necessity.”

Mr  José Carreira
Source: EASO

General discussions were held relating to the Common European Asylum System as a whole, and EASO’s efforts with regard to the ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy in particular. You’re probably very familiar with this approach, but it should be stressed that hotspots are joint efforts between EASO, Frontex, Europol and Eurojust, and the relevant authorities in the particular Member State. From what we currently know (since information on hotspots is quite difficult to come across), their work relates primarily to the identification and registration of migrants. What is not clear, for us at least, are issues such as access by NGOs and lawyers to the hostpots, provision of basic services, detention during one’s stay at the hotspot and procedures following decisions adopted by the hotspot inter-agency set-up.

This system has been criticised by some for its‘crudeness’, and also for its potential to result in large numbers of refugees being turned away as a result of the alleged ‘simplicity’ of its functioning. Others, like Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, have welcomed the approach.

Last year's Consultative Forum plenary meeting
Source: EASO

The European Agenda on Migration was also given considerable attention. This Agenda, adopted earlier this year, is based on the Political Guidelines established by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. It identifies four pillars of managing migration:

1.    Addressing the root causes of migration, and accordingly reducing the incentives for migration.
2.    The improved management of the EU’s external borders, relieving peripheral Member States of migratory pressures.
3.    Solidarity with Member States affected severely by large migratory flows by further cooperation and strengthening of the Common European Asylum System.
4.    The development of a new policy relating to legal migration.

Further, as stressed by Mr Carreira, EASO’s engagement with civil society was examined and discussed. EASO described this as ‘a fruitful dialogue with key organizations and other interested stakeholders’. The objective seems to be to enhance cooperation and develop cooperative tools in order to better implement the Common European Asylum System. The result of this ‘fruitful dialogue’ remains to be seen, as we have often commented on the relationship between EASO and civil society organisations.

Further commentary will be provided in an up-coming post.