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President, Ministers, Excellencies and colleagues,

I would first like to add my thanks to those of Frauke Seidensticker in expressing my gratitude to Her Excellency President Coleiro Preca, to Kaia Iva, Minister of Social Protection of the Republic of Estonia, and to Tiina Astola, Director-General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission, and to all of you for accepting our invitation.

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights turns 10 years old this year, and while we are wary of calling it a celebration in these troubling times for human rights, there is a great deal to be proud of. 

The year 2017 marks a double anniversary: 60 years since the creation of the European Community and 10 since the establishment of FRA. These anniversaries tell a story of the EU’s evolution from an organisation focused mainly on economic cooperation to one in which respect for fundamental rights is a basic pillar of law and policy.

Fundamental rights are embedded in the EU to an extent that is truly remarkable. The European Court of Justice insisted from the earliest days on compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. Then the Lisbon Treaty was adopted. This made the EU’s very own bill of rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, legally binding, and paved the way for the EU to take a more outspoken stance on fundamental rights. In 2007, the Fundamental Rights Agency was established, the EU’s independent human rights body, with a mandate covering the full scope of rights laid out in the Charter.

We must also acknowledge the extent to which initiatives have been taken to mainstream human rights across EU law and policy.

These achievements notwithstanding, there of course remain big gaps in the protection of human rights across the EU and its member states. FRA’s 2017 Fundamental Rights Report analyses these gaps in selected critical areas and takes note of the efforts made to address them. 

Take, for example, migration. This topic is set to remain at the top of the EU agenda, and exhibits great challenges at both the micro and the macro levels.

On the micro level, I have seen with my own eyes during numerous visits to the Greek islands and Italy just how much still needs to be done to ensure decent conditions for refugees and other migrants in reception facilities.

On the macro level, we are seeing the continued lack of a genuine European solidarity that would ease the burden on Greece and Italy and contribute to the dignity and protection of migrants.

Indeed, the potential for fundamental rights violations at all stages of the migration and asylum process is significant, as the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency has shown. The greatest challenges are documented clearly in our monthly updates on the human rights situation of those arriving in the EU, a unique snapshot of issues including migrant-related legislation, reception facility conditions, and hate crime incidents in 14 EU countries.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today’s conference is dedicated to the children’s view. This is particularly relevant in the context of migration.

Approximately a third of asylum applications in the EU in both 2015 and 2016 were from children, many of them unaccompanied. The total number of child asylum applicants increased from around 62,000 in 2010 to almost 370,000 in 2015, a six-fold increase. 88 % of all children who arrived in Italy by sea in 2016 were unaccompanied.

Efforts to guarantee the level of protection that international, EU and national law afford to unaccompanied and separated children have put asylum and child protection systems in many places under unprecedented strain. In order to remedy the situation, we must ensure that better safeguards are in place to protect children, including from violence, exploitation and trafficking. This includes:

  1. Every effort to avoid the detention of children.
  2. The deployment of child protection officers and other trained personnel.
  3. The development of a complaints mechanism accessible to children in reception and detention.
  4. Measures to preserve family unity and prevent separation.

Strengthening child protection systems, including in the health, education and justice systems, will help not only to take the better care of migrant and refugee children, but also support their integration into local communities.

But, ladies and gentlemen,

At the Fundamental Rights Agency, we do not regard the migrant’s journey as ending at the EU’s external borders. We believe that migration policy has to take people through to their final destination, to their integration in schools, the health system, and the labour market.

Our findings clearly demonstrate that the EU and its Member States should pay more attention to the integration not only of newly arrived migrants, but also their children and children’s children, who may well have been born here.

Of course migrants need to be willing to become part of European society. But that cannot happen if we do not create the framework for them to do so.

A recent German study about a subject as prosaic as finding an apartment showed that two people in their late twenties, working in the same sector and speaking fluent German, have completely different experiences, depending only on whether their name sounds native German or foreign. Sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly, those with an Arabic-sounding name met the most discrimination, followed by those with a Turkish name.

FRA will later this year be publishing the findings of a survey of Muslims living in the EU, part of its second large scale survey of minorities and migrants, for which we asked more than 25,000 people about their experiences of discrimination and hate crime. This will help policy makers as well as local authorities develop targeted measures to make a real change.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me now turn to concrete action the EU and its member states can take to systematically strengthen their efforts to protect fundamental rights.

First of all, we need to know, refer to, and use the law. It is imperative that we return, again and again, to the point that human rights are not a voluntary code, but are enshrined in EU and international law. That is why I welcome the centrality of fundamental rights in the 2008 Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia, the 2012 Victims’ Rights Directive and the 2016 data protection reform package (to mention but a few key pieces of EU legislation).

With regard to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, we still have to work towards its wider use, particularly at national level, where the potential has certainly not yet been fully exploited.

At the same time, it is imperative the EU’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights is successful, partly simply to avoid the perception of limitations to the Union’s commitment to human rights.

With threats to the rule of law emerging in a number of countries in recent years, there is also an urgent need for the rule of law oversight framework to be strengthened. We have to be able to address systemic threats to the rule of law in member states in real time.

Second, we need to be as committed to human rights at home as we are abroad. The Charter provides a solid foundation for including references to fundamental rights obligations across all areas and types of EU action, fostering a culture of fundamental rights. But a gap persists between the EU’s internal fundamental rights policies and its external commitment to human rights. The European Union’s generous advice and funding to support human rights beyond its own borders needs to be matched by unwavering commitment at home. This is especially relevant today regarding support for civil society.

Third: make use of the expertise and data the Fundamental Rights Agency has to offer, as the Council stressed last year in its JHA Council conclusions. The European Parliament is making increasing use of its power to request legal Opinions on forthcoming or proposed EU laws, and it could make sense in the future to involve the Agency more systematically in the development of EU legislation. Empowering FRA to work in the area of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters would also ensure this sensitive EU policy area is not exempt from independent fundamental rights scrutiny.

Your Excellency, Minister, dear colleagues,

Finally, I would like to address a concern common to us all, to all of us who care about human and fundamental rights. Our currency – the language and category of human rights – is allegedly devalued. Our ability is in question to convince policy makers, and indeed, to convince the general public. This is a serious concern that casts doubt on the entire architecture of human rights that has been so painstakingly constructed since the Second World War.

Multiple responses are required. Let me briefly mention just three.

In the first place, we must reconnect with the general population. We must demonstrate that human rights is as much about them as it is about the vulnerable groups at the margins of society. We can do this by placing an increasing focus on framing the big issues facing our societies in terms of human rights. To take just one example, that is why the current focus on the human rights of older people is welcome.

Second, we must assiduously make the business case for human rights. In other words, we cannot just rely on the legal or ethical base for our claims. Instead, we must time and time again show how the human rights approach is the best one in terms of solid and sustainable impact in our societies.

Third, we need to challenge the multiple myths that persist – and indeed are sometimes propounded – about human rights. The human and fundamental rights legal systems are a reasonable and balanced legal framework. They are not about zero-sum games, and they recognise the need to restrict rights as long as such limitations respect the principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality.

Dear friends,

To conclude, let me assure you that while there is a great deal to be done, the Fundamental Rights Agency is in good shape and determined to play its irreplaceable role. The Agency looks forward to journeying forward with all of you, in order for us together to deliver on that promise contained in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – of a world where everyone is free and equal in dignity and in rights.

Thank you.