UN official calls EU’s asylum system ‘extremely dysfunctional’


António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told a Brussels audience yesterday (20 April) that the European Union's asylum system was "extremely dysfunctional" and that he didn't believe that reforms could meet a December 2012 target.

Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, chose an event marking the first anniversary of the Arab Spring to voice his strong disappointment with the EU's lack of coherent policy towards the southern neighbourhood.

"The Arab awakening has created in me one of the most frustrating moments of my life as a European citizen and as a Portuguese citizen," he said at the event, organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC).

He took as example the Portuguese 'Carnation' revolution of 1974 to illustrate the fact that international solidarity and enthusiasm had been the key for democracy to prevail in his country. In a similar situation, he said that the dominant message from Europe on the occasion of the 2011 events in North Africa has not been of solidarity and enthusiasm, but of concern about a possible invasion of people.  

He said that in the case of the Arab Spring, Europe was transforming an opportunity into a problem. He gave as an example the 1.5 million people – many of them African workers – who had left Libya during the country's regime collapse, but who didn't go to Europe, as most of them returned to their countries of origin.

"Europe needs to have a rational attitude about these questions, and Europe needs to look into the Arab awakening as a fantastic opportunity for the region and for the world, as something that can have an historical impact," he said.

'The humanitarian space is shrinking'

The UN High Commissioner described the global picture of refugee flows, which he said this year had substantially increased by 800,000, mainly because of the greater number of conflict situations.

New conflicts appear – such as Côte d'Ivoire, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, the South Sudan-North Sudan relationship, the Tuareg unrest in Mali – while old conflicts remain – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo – he said, illustrating his message that the humanitarian space worldwide was "shrinking".

The UNHCR chief appeared to regret the bipolar world in which the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, had "kept things under control", or the American hegemony in the 1990s and at the beginning of 2000, when "rules were clear".

"Now we are no longer in a bipolar or unipolar world, but we are not yet also in a multi-polar world," he said.

"The United States has lost enormous influence, Europe as a political entity is missing in action, even if European countries are active in some of these crises, and the new emerging powers are not yet permitted, or not yet able to play a determinant role in the shaping of international relations."

'Nobody is in charge'

"Apparently, we are in a situation in which nobody is in charge and in which unpredictability became the name of the game," the UN official stated.

He then pleaded for the EU to review its attitudes on migration and to asylum, and try to build a new platform of cooperation with countries of origin, countries of transit and countries of destination on the issue of "people on the move".

But for that purpose, the first step the EU needed to take, was to deal with its own asylum system, Guterres said.

"And there we have a basic problem. The European asylum system is extremely dysfunctional. … There is no such a thing as an European asylum system," he added, also expressing scepticism as to the chance to reform the system by the end of 2012, as the EU member countries have agreed.

As an illustration of the malfunction of the EU's asylum system, he gave the example of an Afghan asking protection in different EU countries. Depending on the country, his statistical chances for the last year have varied between 8% to 91%, he said, later explaining that his criticism was not directed against the European Commission, which had made "good proposals".

The UN high official said Europe's ageing societies badly needed immigration.

"Europe cannot survive without migration. Migration is an absolutely essential component of Europe's capacity to survive," he said, adding: "We have no choice. Europe will be, inevitably, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society. There is no way to avoid it … And it's better to manage immigration than to pretend we can avoid it".

The UNHCR chief rejected views that millions of refugees from the developing world would invade Europe. He said that in most of the cases, people were displaced to border areas awaiting the end of a conflict, and praised the countries that had kept their border open, even confronted with a massive inflow of people. He said that the people in the developing world had a greater sense of generosity compared to Western Europe. Generosity obviously is "not proportionate to wealth," he said.

Guterres, a Social Democrat, also blasted the "schizophrenic debate" about migration in Europe, as well as statements of politicians who said that Europe's policy of integrating immigrants had failed.

In October 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that her country's attempt to create a multicultural society had "utterly failed". Months later, UK Prime Minister David Cameron expressed similar views.

On 4 January 2011, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor died of burns over 90% of his body three weeks after setting himself on fire to protest police who would routinely confiscate his goods.

The 'Jasmine' revolt was the spark for revolutions that would sweep the Arab world. The popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes at first brought the hopes of an Arab Spring akin to the wave of freedom and opportunity that swept Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Iron Curtain. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso described the events as "a rendez-vous with history".

However, it also created a refugee panic in countries like Greece and Italy that were also facing waves of refugees.

After the promise of the Arab Spring came an autumn that disenchanted the Union. Tunisia's elections brought an Islamist party to power. In Egypt, elections took place amid violence. In Libya, NATO fought a war, spearheaded by Britain and France, under the pretext of enforcing of a no-flight zone. Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi came to a violent end under highly suspicious circumstances. And Syria's uprising grew more violent.

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