FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty keynote address to the EASO Consultative Forum Plenary Meeting on the the initial steps of the asylum procedure that took place in Brussels on 12 November.
Thank you EASO for the kind invitation to talk to you today.
I would like to set as a context for my words this afternoon some recent experiences of mine. The first one is that I was in the Moria centre on Lesvos just two and bit weeks ago and like everybody else, I was shocked and deeply worried. It was my third visit to Moria and you have to actually be there and to see the realty for the words to hit home of how grave the situation is. You have to see, you have to smell, to experience what 14,000 people look like in a 3,000 persons facility. You have to look at the line for the doctor to understand the figures of 10,000 people waiting for a primary health check. You have to see the cockroaches in the open sewer, to understand what happens when you have completely overwhelmed the already basic sewage facilities. So, I’m still quite shaken by what I saw. I described it then and I will stand over the remarks as the single most critical human rights situation in the European Union today.
Before passing away from that memory, I would say that I was also left troubled by the human rights situation of two other groups beyond migrants. One group is that of workers in these facilities, be they staff of the government of Greece, of NGOs and other parts of civil society, of EASO and the other agencies. They are heroes doing their jobs in these facilities today and they are being put under impossible circumstances and conditions. And so, I think their human rights need to be acknowledged. And then, the third category of human rights that I think must not be overlooked in all of these discussions is that of local communities whose local indigenous economies have been turned on their heads through the prolonged nature of this situation.
So, my visit to Lesvos and Moria just so many days ago is strongly in my mind today but even more immediately in my mind is where I was this morning, why I couldn’t be with you. I was at the event to mark the tenth anniversary of the adoption as law in the European Union of its Charter of Fundamental Rights. We didn’t celebrate this morning, we marked, because we have the sense we have still so very far to go to bring the Charter to life, but nevertheless we recognised that a big push is needed right now.
These two moments are what I want to use to frame what I say to you today.
Firstly why Moria? Because we must never forget that discussing asylum is discussing human beings, it is discussing vulnerable human beings and it is engaging with sometimes profound human suffering. And so, those people must be at the centre of our stage, right through our discourse. And secondly, as we have our discourse, those of us, at least who operate within EU and Member States capacities, must never forget how our work must be founded on law. It is based on law, it is based above all else on the strong human and fundamental rights commitments that our Institutions and our States have entered into and today obviously I’m thinking of the EU Magna Carta itself, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, with its very important Article 18. Article 18 of the Charter contains the only explicit right to asylum that you will find in any international human rights instrument and that’s something that we should be proud of, but which we need to bring to life.
It is in the bringing to life, the delivery of Article 18 that I so very much welcome the focus of your discussion at this conference on the early stages of the asylum procedure. Forgive me for having missed this discussion this morning, I’m probably about to repeat much of that was said already, but we at the Fundamental rights Agency are very concerned and entirely convinced that getting the first step correct, is essential for the successful delivery of all future steps, both in the asylum process and later. In other words, what gets done in the first stages of asylum has lasting, sometime lifelong, consequences.
Just to take a few examples.
Registration: making a mistake in the registration can have devastating consequences down the line. And we know from our work that mistakes happen. The people who enter databases by the very fact of being human, make mistakes. But these mistakes can be minimized, these mistakes can be engaged, but we have to be extremely vigilant on that most basic of issues.
There is the matter of age determination, get the age wrong and all manner of consequences can flow: mistake a child for an adult or get the age wrong so that child gets treated as an adult to soon can be devastating. Remember the developing phases of the child: a child of 15, let’s say, is a very different human being to an adult of 18. Those 3 years in child development, they are like a generation. Getting age determination wrong carries terrible consequences.
A third example I want to give of the importance of getting it right early, has to do with recognition of vulnerabilities. I mentioned the 10,000 people waiting in Moria for primary screening. Waiting for primary screening means that they are waiting for health related vulnerabilities to be identified and addressed. And I’m referring here to not just to physical health vulnerabilities but also to mental health which I think is inadequately acknowledged. Earlier in my life I worked in war zones, I worked for the United Nations in Bosnia, in Afghanistan, in Sierra Leone , in Timor, and in a number of other countries and I saw first hand what trauma and stress look like and how extreme stress and related traumatic indications, can devastate human lives and the life of those close to that person.
And finally, in terms of getting it right early, there is the issue of efficient, fair, speed, of moving things along, avoiding excessive delays. In this context by the way, when we speak of this in the Fundamental Rights Agency, we always match the word “fair” with the word “fast”. We can’t be fast at the expense of fair. We delivered a paper setting out ten elements for a fair and fast procedure which we delivered to the Greek Government, at its request, in July of this year.
Now, as you examine the asylum process, its early and its other stages, in a framing of law as I mentioned earlier, it is really important that we keep in mind some very important EU legislation. I mention just two Directives that are immediately relevant, and you know them very well. The first is the Asylum Procedures Directive. We have to keep interrogating the extent to which we are delivering on the contents of the Asylum Procedures Directive. Are we really getting the information across to asylum seekers in a manner that it is intelligible in the diversity of their ages and their cultural contexts? Child protection; are we doing enough to deliver the guarantees of protection and guardianship for unaccompanied children? And then turning to, just to take an example, the Reception Conditions Directive. It counts for nothing if we have a swift, fair procedure and people are living in squalor. The capacity to engage with a swift, fair procedure is profoundly undermined because they are hungry, they are sick, they are exhausted because they couldn’t sleep, because they had nowhere to put their heads. And so, no less important then, are the conditions in which we engage with our fellow human beings.
I would like to move away from the asylum procedure for just a moment and take this opportunity to make one or two points with regard to the “before” of the asylum procedure and the “after” of the asylum procedure.
First the before.
We are worried at the Fundamental Rights Agency that this, our Europe, with the finest constitutional set of human rights on earth is pushing people back. We know that there are pushbacks in some places. People who are not even allowed the opportunity to apply for asylum. This must stop. We all know about deaths at sea, we know that they have significantly reduced in recent months but are still happening. They are in part still happening because of, right now, an inadequate rescue capacity. Let me just pause here and pay tribute to Member States as well as to Frontex, for all those who have been saved over recent years. So many thousands of people alive because of the intervention of the rescue facilities. But of course there was much pulling back in controversial circumstances up to recent months and we still do not have enough capacity and place and we still have interferences with boats. We still have boats travelling around the Mediterranean and having difficulties in disembarking people, as you know better than me. And we have the issue of violence against migrants. I categorize it here because it sometimes flashes up at entry points, but we see it across Europe. A largely provoked violence against the wellbeing and the safety of migrants, which is entirely unacceptable in rule of law states.
Let me move then to the after, the post-asylum phase, the integration phase.
The Fundamental Rights Agency will publish a report in coming days on the experience of the young people who came to Europe in 2015 and 2016. This is I think, ground-breaking work. We followed many hundreds of migrants across a number of EU Member States and we engaged in extensive interviews with them, with those who work with them, who support them, with government officials, with EU agencies, with civil society, with everybody involved in the life experience of those migrants and we mapped what happened to them. As you would expect, we found a mixed picture, we found some really good practice, but we found a lot of problem areas.
Let me just share with you one insight from the report right now.
The research demonstrated to us what is already known but needed to be reinforced: that is not a linear process, you are not an arriving migrant today, an asylum seeker tomorrow, and somebody who starts to benefit from integration the day after all of that. It is not so neatly linear, it is not so neatly divisible into phases. We need to see a continuum for which we have to engage different elements in the same moment. What I mean by that is that we already need to be thinking of integration during the asylum consideration phase. Mainly this is because we are so slow with 2 years on average to process an asylum claim in Europe, at least in the countries we looked at. So you can’t wait for those 2 years to expire before looking at issues of integration, you lose your moment, you lose the possibility of effective integration by not engaging then.
Just before I wrap up dear friends,
I want to take a moment to speak about civil society. Many of you come from civil society, I acknowledge that and I want to take today’s opportunity to pay tribute to you. The role of civil society is absolutely critical and core and essential to every stage of the story of a migrant arriving on our shores, going through the asylum application experience and hopefully then being integrated. It is impossible to imagine any aspect working without the work of civil society and I here refer to all the different areas in which it is engaged. I think of service provision, of course, it speaks for itself, but I would also add advocacy, the advocacy voices of civil society are critical to everybody doing a better job. We know that civil society is under pressure and threat in Europe in too many ways. We have been studying this extensively over last few years; we see multiple pressure points on civil society, not just in the area of migration but much more generally. Pressure points of restrictive access to money, restrictive access to decision makers and direct threat and many others, and I just want to assure you of the absolute solidarity of the Fundamental Rights Agency as we all together push back against those threats.
Let me wrap up, I could have a list of like twenty action points at the end just throw them and walk out the door, but I decided not to do that. I would just like to leave you with one respectfully suggested action point and that is that all of us in our diversity, governments, EU agencies, civil society, the media, the United Nations, all of us, we share a common goal of delivering respectful and decent honouring of fellow human beings. We all share that, as a goal and as our ambition. And so in that spirit I would encourage us to do an ever better job of working together, of cooperating in this critical human situation. And as we do that, working together, I ask that we increasingly bring human rights into the heart of our discussion and not least through the content of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
So I thank you all very much indeed. Please count within its limited capacity with the support and the cooperation of the Fundamental Rights Agency. I wish you a very successful meeting and every best wish for your work.