The first Relocation Forum took place in Brussels on the 25 September organised by the European Commission. Among the participants were Member States, Associated Countries, representatives from the European Parliament, European Asylum Support Office (EASO), UNHCR and International Organization for Migration.
I attach my speech below if you are interested to read it.
Speech by commissioner Malmström at the Relocation Forum
We are here today to discuss a very important topic – the relocation of beneficiaries of international protection and also of asylum seekers from one Member State to another. I know that there are lots of different views about relocation. These views range from some in the European Parliament calling for compulsory relocation and an EU-wide distribution key where responsibility is shared more evenly within the Union.
Other views as you know come from Member States that are against relocation as a concept as they view it as a pull-factor and think that it is a disincentive to other Member States from improving the quality of their asylum systems. Most countries think it can be an important tool of solidarity but not a compulsory one. Against this background and in the light of the discussion I had with Home Affairs ministers during lunch in October 2012, I took the decision that there could be no Commission proposal in the foreseeable future for a permanent legal mechanism for relocation – either voluntary or compulsory. Instead, today, we are holding our first Relocation Forum.
I am conscious that it is very easy to talk about solidarity, but then fail to act on one’s words. Relocation is a very tangible form of solidarity – it provides immediate relief to a pressurised asylum system. Relocation efforts to date have had a real effect. That is why the Commission is organising this relocation forum and why financial assistance is provided for relocation in the Asylum and Migration Fund. The events of the summer show that there is still a lot of pressure on certain states, especially due to the terrible crisis in Syria. The future is very uncertain and could bring new pressures regardless of the political developments.
We are now also faced with the possibility that there could be significant increases in applications for asylum to countries within easy reach of Syria like Bulgaria, Malta, Cyprus, Italy and Greece. The situation in Egypt remains unstable and could have implications for migratory flows. We have a problematic situation in the Horn of Africa. And so on.
I think it is worth considering the historical perspective. In the 1990s the Western Balkan wars provoked an asylum crisis. Several Member States were affected by this crisis and would have at the time welcomed relief from the pressure on their asylum systems, if only relocation had been available as a tool. So, relocation is a tool that can be adapted to different circumstances over the years, and it is worth remembering that it may be somebody else’s crisis today, but tomorrow it could be yours.
Today’s relocation forum is therefore a good opportunity for us to discuss relocation, not only from Malta, but also from other Member States in case asylum applications increase in such a way that their systems are overwhelmed. I should say that participation in relocation efforts now or in the past in no way binds your hands concerning your future relocation intentions.
We do however need to start reflecting more on what we really mean with solidarity and a true Common European Asylum System. We know that it for many reasons might not be suitable to create a distribution key within the Union, but is it really a fair and common system to have 5 Member States taking 70 % of all the asylum seekers?
The instrument of relocation could give a very good opportunity for those Members States who have few asylum seekers to take more responsibility in our common system. It is also an opportunity to gradually build up a fully functioning reception system. Some of the Member States today are truly in need of help and others can therefore make an important contribution by alleviating others. Lesser pressured Member States can show solidarity. It is perhaps only fair at this point if I state the obvious in reminding Member States that, however tough the situation gets, push-backs are illegal and contrary to the principle of non-refoulement. Access to the asylum procedure must be guaranteed. There is a responsibility to give decent conditions and to integrate people.
The Relocation forum is a totally flexible approach. The Commission and Member States should define together how to use it. From my perspective, the forum is an opportunity to discuss current pressures and lessons learned on relocation. I see us discussing relocation in two contexts.
First, as a measure to be applied concerning current pressures in Member States like Malta for instance;
Second, concerning future crises, such as a potential increase in the number of Syrian asylum applicants to Cyprus, Bulgaria, Greece or other Member States.
I hope that the relocation forum will be useful in a number of ways. For those Member States interested in pledging places for AMF funding or for using national funds, it is a useful indicator as to what the needs are across the EU. For those considering asking for assistance, it is a useful opportunity to do so. For those not planning on relocating, it is useful to find out what others are doing. For those Member States that have pledged in the past but found difficulties in practice, it is an opportunity to share information on the practicalities of relocation. And for the Commission it is an opportunity to coordinate relocation activities across the EU. It is also an opportunity to talk about the concept of relocation as such and its inter-linkages with other forms of solidarity.
As far as the Syrian crisis is concerned, we follow it very closely, relocation needs to be a central part of our toolbox in the framework of contingency planning. Relocation can assist Member States that have a specific geographical reason for needing assistance, such as Cyprus, Greece and Bulgaria.
I want to look now to the lessons from the EUREMA projects. We understand that Member States don’t necessarily want EU project-managed relocation with rigid administrative requirements – that is why we will no longer have a EUREMA project, but instead we will have money available under the Asylum and Migration Fund for relocation activities that will be much easier to implement. I was most interested by the replies I received from some Member States concerning the letter I wrote in May to Ministers confirming that we would hold a relocation forum. In some cases I was told that relocation risked being a pull factor and therefore was undesirable. I have to say that so far we have no evidence at all that relocation is a pull factor. If any real evidence of this comes to light, please share it with us.
We have no desire to create pull factors and no desire for people to undertake unnecessarily hazardous journeys across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. But we should not refuse to show solidarity to another Member State because we decide that relocation creates a pull factor when we have no evidence to substantiate that claim.
Again, several of your Ministers wrote to me to say that you don’t object to relocation per se, but that you would like all relocation to remain ad hoc. We are doing our best to accommodate your preferences, but I am sure that you can understand that for the purposes of running a budget we need to set aside a sum of money for relocation activities and we will do that on the basis of your pledges for relocation. That means that you are encouraged to think in advance about what relocation activities you are able to foresee for the following year.
However, where there is a crisis that needs addressing rapidly, we will also reserve some of the budget so that it can be used retrospectively. In other words, if you relocate more people than you initially anticipated in any given year, we will do what we can to compensate you from the AMF even if the decision is retrospective. But the more that is planned, the more likely we are to be able to finance you.
There is still an opportunity to relocate via EUREMA II as well until the end of this year, before the AMF comes into force. We encourage Member States that have not fulfilled their full pledges through EUREMA II to do so. If a Member State wishes to relocate before the end of this year, it is possible for them to do so via EUREMA II even if they were not previously part of the project. We will be happy to provide you with explanations as to how this can be done.
I would like to thank those Member States that were generous enough to pledge places under the EUREMA projects in the knowledge that it would be tough to relocate. The statistics may be disappointing, but I am aware of the significant efforts by Member States to change their internal processes to make it more likely that relocation will be successful in the future.
I would like to thank Denmark and the Associated Countries for your participation – you do not have access to EU funds for relocation and therefore your actions are especially welcome as a demonstration of genuine solidarity. Relocation is not a quick fix, it will not solve all the problems. It is one of many tools to alleviate and assist a Member State under pressure and in severe difficulties. Other types of assistance include funding, technical and human resources, training, contingency planning, EASO etc. Relocation is also not an alternative to get your house in order. It is however a true expression of solidarity and I do hope that many Member States can take part.