On 26th November, EASO organised the second meeting of the Consultative Forum. We're listed on EASO's list of organisations, and of course being based in Malta hugely facilitates our attendance of these meetings...so I attended in representation of the organisation. In this post I'll try to summarise my main impressions from the meeting, with a separate post in a few days on the specific discussion I participated in regarding the Early-Warning Mechanism.
It was good to note that the total number of participants, particularly of NGOs, was not as low as originally predicted or expected. We did try attracting increased NGO participation in earlier posts, and we were told that EASO and also UNHCR tried to boost attendance figures. To avoid unnecessary repetition, I'll refrain from repeating much of what we've already commented on in relation to the apparent lack of mutual understanding and/or trust between EASO and NGOs.
This concern remains one of the Agency's big challenges, as also reflected in many of the thematic discussions held in the various workshop sessions where several NGOs strongly reiterated the need for EASO to guarantee that any interactivity will be worth the necessary time, effort and resources.
A recurring theme that seemed to underlie much of these discussions questioned the boundary between the roles of the Executive Director and the State-run Management Board, to the extent that in some workshops it was actually unclear whether the discussions and queries were being directed towards Dr. Visser and his team, or to the MS governments. It's evident that the importance of resolving this possible tension, and of delineating or clarifying this boundary extends well beyond the single issue of EASO/NGO relations into the very core of the Office's identity, in terms of profile, transparency, independence and ultimate success.
Here a short summary of the salient points made by Visser in his opening presentation:
- Greece, clear signs of strong commitment to improve the asylum situation there, with real results being produced. Visser also confirmed the agreement with UNHCR, on the basis of which UNHCR will support the clearing of the asylum backlog in Greece. In this context, you should read the statement by UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants regarding his country visit to Greece;
- Resettlement was not an original EASO priority, but the Office is now in a position to explore the area more actively, with refugee resettlement seen as an instrument in the Agency's toolbox;
- EASO's fact-finding report on the intra-EU relocation project EUREMA is finalised and presented to the Commission. Visser was happy to point out that the Office went beyond the Council's original request and also explored the question as to why some EU MS chose to engage in bilateral - as opposed to structural - relocation exercises, and also why some EU MS chose not to participate in either form of relocation activity;
- Second Country of Origin Information report on Afghanistan to be published before Christmas. In fact, we received this second report just yesterday...you can download it here, and the related press release here. We've also received a very interesting review of EASO's first Afghanistan report, to be found in the December Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter;
- Interestingly, Visser mentioned the production and use with the Greek authorities of country fact sheets to support their asylum decision-making. Not much information was given on which countries are covered, issues covered, etc...we'll see if EASO's willing to share these with us, in which case we'll share them with our readers;
- European Asylum Curriculum training was well under-way, with it open to all MS as a real durable system spanning over a regular training calendar. New modules are in the pipe-line, and an update of some existing modules will be undertaken. There is also the thought of creating specific modules for judiciary training;
- Quality in asylum decision-making remains EASO's primary objective, as the best way to truly harmonise policies and practices and as "an expression of the EU values we stand for" (Visser). It was confirmed that EASO was in talks with UNHCR to initiate asylum quality projects, along the lines of UNHCR's activities in the UK;
- The new Early-Warning Mechanism is definitely the Office's top priority at the moment, and from what we gathered in the EWM workshop it will remain a top priority for quite some time. In his presentation Visser stated that the aim of this exercise is to obtain a true image/assessment of a current real situation so as to assess which form of support would be most appropriate in a situation of unexpected flows of asylum-seekers. As mentioned above, a specific post will be drafted on this workshop;
- The future of the Consultative Forum will be largely based on e-networking, with more strategic use of the Internet. Also that the Forum is not limited to the December plenary meeting, but is an on-going process that sees NGOs being consulted on various issues throughout the year in the context of the specific meetings organised by the Office (e.g. on UAMs and resettlement).
For the same reasons we've tried attracting NGOs to actively engage with EASO, we're glad that we attended this second Consultative Forum meeting. Beyond the interesting discussions we had in some of the workshops, the useful networking with colleagues and the catching up with good friends, we would like to think that the meeting served as a potential launch pad for some of the NGO comments on EASO's operations and methodologies to actually reach the Executive Director, his team...and also (or primarily?) the Management Board. That's me being optimistic, because it's how I tend to be.
If I wanted to be pessimistic, I would have to say that the meeting left many of us with a lingering bad taste in our mouths because this second meeting actually confirmed many of our suspicions: that despite statements and efforts to the contrary, the Office seems to be a mere extension of the Member States...with the Management Board not limiting itself to general issues but engaging in micro-management, with a number of key Member States (guesses?) running the entire show.
And if I wanted to be an annoying pessimist, I would ask a number of queries since time did not allow us to present them during the meeting:
- What is the real impact of EASO's activities in Greece, in specific terms? In fact, reiterating our earlier request for the EASO/Greece Operating plan (denied), is it possible for EASO to tell us what it is doing in Greece and why the decision has been taken (if at all) not to engage with any Greek NGOs?
- Why did EASO draft, finalise and adopt an Operational Plan for the Consultative Forum without this being shared with the members of the Forum? Surely, had this been shared, discussed and finalised together EASO could have secured a higher degree of ownership from most, if not all, of us (I realised we've lost the link to this document...we'll share it in the coming days);
- In this last-mentioned document, there is reference to a 'confidentiality agreement' Consultative Forum members will be required to sign. What is the rationale behind this?
- During this second Consultative Forum meeting, there was a substantial number of government representatives. Whilst we can appreciate the advantages of this methodology to secure effective dialogue, we question the sagacity of this approach also since the Consultative Forum Operational Plan does not mention government representatives amongst the list of intended Consultative Forum members. Whatever decision has or will be taken on the composition of the Consultative Forum, its communication would be appreciated.
If you participated in the meeting and have any feedback at all to provide, please do leave a comment below, or send us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org