I would like to add my thanks to FRA’s Management Board Chair for the opportunity to present FRA’s 2016 Fundamental Rights Report. The report, as you know, is adopted by the Management Board, but on the basis of the work of the staff at the Agency, and I take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to all the colleagues in Vienna for the wonderful work that lies behind the pages before you.
Honourable Members of the Committee, 2015 was a bad year. It was a year in which we saw regression in the protection of fundamental rights. It was a year in which we saw a rise in the unacceptable rhetoric that is at odds with fundamental rights and their related values. You will get a sense of this story as you read all the chapters of our Annual Report.
I will give you just a few examples on the most pressing issues that are covered in the Fundamental Rights Report: 1) asylum and migration, 2) rights of the child, 3) racism and xenophobia and 4) data protection.
- The first, inevitably, in the same context FRA’s Chairperson spoke just now must be on issue of migration and asylum. I will not give you any statistics, but this is undoubtedly a crisis of values, a crisis of fundamental rights. In that context, we deeply appreciate the manner in which this Committee has very closely been watching the unfolding situation. We encourage you to continue to pay sustained attention by means of dedicated hearings on the fundamental rights dimensions of the situation.
As your work goes forward, distinguished Members of the Committee, you will find much of relevance in the Annual Report. For instance, you will see evidence that in 2015 there was a pattern of pushbacks in some countries, which was likely to lead to situations of refoulement. We have seen how even policies that are benign from an administrative point of view can expose migrants to the risk of refoulement in their day-to-day application. We have seen changes to rules in some member states whereby family reunification was delayed to an extent that raise issues of fundamental rights.
- If I turn towards a second thematic area, the rights of the child, here too I must stay with the issue of migration. Between 30 % and 40 % of migrants are children. Two children have drowned every day since September 2015. And, of course, time does not allow me to speak of the enormous risk children encounter along the migration route, as well as sexual abuse and exploitation.
As you consider how best to respond, have a look at the Annual Report, which proposes some specific measures that will and could make a difference. In the first place, we need to do a much better job of integrating national child protection strategies in asylum and migration processes. Secondly, by way of one further example, we need to do a better, quicker job of appointing guardians for unaccompanied children.
- Let me now move to the third area of my focus today, and that is the area of racism and intolerance. Frankly, these remain the scourge of 2015, with reports from a number of communities of a rise in such forms as anti-Semitic attacks, attacks on Muslims, attacks on Roma. It is very important to recognise that, to the extent to which these are attacks on minority groups, the minorities are not the problem. They are the victims, and instead the problem lies in inadequate and poorly enforced laws, and the need to see change among policymakers.
More generally, as the Annual Report observes, most of our Member States need to do a better job of recording and prosecuting hate crime.
- My final area is that of data protection, where our Annual Report describes the perennial challenge of properly balancing national security, on the one hand, with fundamental rights on the other. The report reflects the continued importance when proposing to limit rights of doing so on the basis of the application of three core principles: legality, necessity, and proportionality. We examined these issues in some depth during 2015 on the basis of a request we received from you for an Opinion on fundamental rights and surveillance in the European Union. We presented this report to you some months back, but let me recall at least two of the curious findings of our work. In the first place, while many states are properly engaged in mass surveillance, only five have a legislative framework for such surveillance. And secondly, there is an extraordinary diversity of oversight bodies and systems across member states. Within this considerable diversity, there are problems of inadequate expertise, lack of resources, and insufficient powers to do jobs properly.
And so as I conclude, Honourable Members of the Committee, going forward, what can we do? Let me briefly make four suggestions.
- Firstly, we commend to your attention the Opinions contained in our Annual Report. There are 41 of them. They have been carefully considered, and they are all, if I may employ the well-known acronym, SMART opinions, which will allow you to propose concrete actions. They range across all the thematic areas with which you are engaged.
- Secondly, put fundamental rights, above all the Charter of Fundamental Rights, at the heart of law making. We are well aware that this Committee is desirous of doing this, but that is not necessarily the case across all subject areas. Fundamental rights must be mainstreamed. For example, let’s see attention to fundamental rights paid more explicitly in discussion of the European Semester.
- Third, we need to reinvigorate fundamental rights training in Europe. We need extensive programs of fundamental rights training across member states that are properly resourced and are smartly delivered. And again here, with the Charter at their heart.
- Finally, distinguished and honourable members of the Committee, as you move forward, please do use FRA. It is your independent centre of human rights and fundamental rights excellence. Draw on its studies, draw on the impeccable data that it delivers persistently each year. Draw on its legal analysis and opinions. Work with it to build awareness and capacity with fundamental rights across our institutions and member states. In other words, and to conclude, we at the Fundamental Rights Agency are at your service in these very challenging times.