Solon Ardittis / Jul 2016
Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship. Photo: European Union
On 13 July the European Commission tabled its latest proposals to complete the reform of the Common European Asylum System. Together with a series of amendments to existing Regulations on common procedures and standards for international protection, and on a uniform status for refugees, a key element in the new package relates to the establishment of a ‘Union Resettlement Framework’.
The proposed Framework aims to establish a unified procedure for resettling refugees across the European Union as well as annual EU resettlement plans setting the broad geographical priorities from where the resettlement should take place and the maximum total number of persons to be resettled in the following year based on the participation and contributions made by the Member States and Associated Schengen countries in the specific annual resettlement plan. The new EU Resettlement Framework further establishes a common set of standard procedures for the selection and treatment of resettlement candidates and foresees both “ordinary” and “expedited” resettlement procedures. To support the member states' resettlement efforts, the Commission will offer €10,000 from the EU budget for each person resettled.
So, does the proposed Union Resettlement Framework have the potential to generate momentum in this critical policy area and is it in line with the magnitude of the number of people in need of resettlement worldwide?
At least three reservations can be advanced at this stage.
First, despite all its merits for providing a common approach to and common standards for safe and legal arrivals of third-country nationals in need of international protection, the current Commission Proposal appears to contain a number of uncertainties. These relate to the way in which refugees will be selected, given that this procedure will be overseen primarily by the Commission; the countries from where refugees will be resettled, bearing in mind that the Commission Proposal suggests that third countries that are most active in controlling the illegal departure of their nationals under the EU Migration Partnership will be prioritised under the new EU resettlement Framework; the duration of residence permits to be issued to resettled refugees; and a number of other uncertainties which NGOs and other entities, including the European Parliament’s Special Rapporteur on Refugee Resettlement, Malin Björk, have been prompt to signal since publication of the Commission Proposal last week.
Second, it might prove difficult to express optimism about a scheme that reproduces, to such a large extent, most of the rules and procedures of the existing EU Relocation and Resettlement programmes that have been operated, with such limited success, since 2015. According to the Fifth Report on Relocation and Resettlement published on 13 July 2016, to date only 3,056 people have been relocated under the EU Relocation Plan that had made it a legal commitment to relocate 160,000 refugees. In terms of resettlement, to date 8,268 people have been resettled under the EU Programme agreed in July 2015, which foresaw the resettlement of 22,504 people within a period of two years. In addition to confirming the persisting reluctance by most member states to share the burden supported by others in the field of refugee protection, these figures must also be compared with the latest projections by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which has recently estimated that the number of people in need of resettlement in 2017 will be in excess of 1.19 million worldwide.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, a key weakness in the proposed EU Resettlement Framework is its lack of flexibility and its exclusive state-led nature. It is indeed surprising not to see any mention of the benefits of private refugee sponsorship programmes operated very successfully by major non-EU refugee receiving countries since a number of years. A case in point is of course the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Programme that Canada has been implementing for almost 40 years and which relies on community and business organisations and smaller citizen-led groups taking responsibility for the refugees entering the country.
Such support is not only financial but also entails skills building and assistance with the initial reception and integration processes. In Canada, between 5,000 and 20,000 refugees are privately sponsored each year. This figure is of course additional to the number of refugees resettled by the state. Interestingly, while a number of German Lander have also been operating a similar programme, the United Kingdom announced this week that it was launching its own Community sponsorship scheme for refugees, which will enable community groups including charities, faith groups, churches and businesses to take on the role of supporting resettled refugees in the UK.
Extending such schemes throughout the EU, and therefore signalling their benefits through dedicated European Commission Communications and Proposals, would clearly contribute to reducing the burden of refugee protection by productively engaging the private and non-governmental sectors and by encouraging more EU states to contribute to refugee resettlement, since only 14 members are currently implementing annual resettlement programmes.
But going one step further, there would also be merit in considering the benefits of extending private sponsorship programmes to purely business-led resettlement schemes that would enable employers in the EU to fill their labour shortages by tapping into selected segments of the refugee population in the EU and in selected third countries. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recently stressed, displaced persons and refugees have the potential to create or fill jobs and strengthen local markets, and therefore should be offered productive and taxable economic opportunities. Interestingly, after having erected a wall to keep migrants out, Hungary is now calling for the launch of a ‘guest workers’ programme to attract hundreds of skilled migrants to fill the country’s labour shortages.
Finally, completing the list of non-state led innovative options, mention should be made of the call made on 14 July 2016 by the Mayors of Barcelona and Naples for the establishment of a ‘network of friendly cities’ that would devise their own local policies in the field of refugee affairs.
While the proposed EU Resettlement Framework must be commended for establishing a common European policy on resettlement, with harmonised procedures and standards, and a permanent system under which to operate for the years ahead, some of the core principles on which it currently draws may appear too restrictive and therefore too constraining. The Framework’s exclusive reliance on state-led resettlement commitments, not to mention its prioritisation of third countries that cooperate effectively in the area of asylum and migration, are particularly disappointing elements in the current Proposal that would merit further examination in the weeks to come.