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Preserve right of asylum, UN refugee agency urges EU Council presidencies

Amid record global displacement, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on Monday urged European countries to prioritize the better protection of people fleeing war, conflict and persecution. 

UNHCR made the appeal in recommendations to France, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), and the Czech Republic, which assumes the presidency in July.  

Although many EU countries remain committed to international human rights and refugee laws and principles, 2021 saw the continuation of violent pushbacks of asylum seekers at EU borders, the agency said, citing “increasing xenophobic political narratives”, as well as physical and legislative barriers. 

Divisive positions and practices

Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, UNHCR’s Representative for EU Affairs, underscored that the right to seek asylum must be preserved. 

“The EU is a Union based on the rule of law, but we have too often seen divisive and politicized positions and practices that seek to evade asylum obligations,” he said

“Mixed movements of refugees and migrants pose challenges to asylum systems. However, these challenges never justify responses that run counter to international law and negate asylum obligations.” 

Comprehensive approach to migration needed 

UNHCR said a proposed European Commission Pact on Migration and Asylum, outlined in September 2020, could move the bloc from “an ad hoc crisis-driven approach” to one that is more comprehensive, well-managed and predictable. 

Progress on ending pushbacks, as well as establishment of independent national mechanisms to investigate them, and measures related to rescues at sea, such as enhanced search and rescue, are “urgently needed”.  

With manageable numbers of new arrivals of refugees and migrants to Europe, now is the time for common action, according to the agency.  

UNHCR has urged the French and Czech Presidencies to promote sustainable asylum reform and achieve progress on key issues that include intra EU solidarity, adequate reception conditions, and fair and fast asylum procedures.  

At the same time, dignified returns for people wishing to go back to their countries of origin, or for those found not to be in need of international protection, are equally crucial. 

‘Recommit to solidarity’ 

In the absence of consensus on a common EU asylum framework, UNHCR fears further “detrimental practices” will arise, including proposals to outsource asylum obligations to other countries.  

 At a time when the number of forcibly displaced people in the world is at an all-time high, when humanitarian needs are increasing, and crucially, when numbers of arrivals to the EU remain manageable, it is essential for the EU to recommit to solidarity – towards people, between states and with countries that host the majority of refugees,” said Mr. Vargas Llosa.  

“No matter how high barriers – physical and legislative – may be, desperate people will seek ways to reach safety”, he continued. “Managing borders, sharing responsibility and respecting human rights are compatible”.