Friday, 27 May 2016

Commission Proposes EASO Reform

In order to discuss the latest proposal for reform of EASO, it is necessary to first give a brief recap of the Agency’s origins and previous functions. EASO was established by the EU institutions in May 2010 via Regulation 439/2010, and has been in operation since 2011. 

Originally, the activities of EASO mainly focused on information gathering and exchange, encouraging and facilitating cooperation between the Member States as well as supporting the proper functioning of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) in general. EASO fostered training and development regarding aspects of asylum and was able to provide extra assistance for Member States in need when their systems faced particular pressure – only when help was asked for.
Its practical functions aimed at increasing convergence between the Member States’ policies on asylum, mainly through this gathering and sharing of information. Its powers were limited to a degree as it had no power to affect decisions taken by Member States on particular cases of asylum, as is specifically mentioned in the original Regulation, and its involvement in this aspect of the procedures was little to none.
There was a clear emphasis on the independence of the Agency. It was to supply information and provide support in a transparent and unbiased way and be diligent in the performance of all duties. Yet it was also criticised for appearing to be too close to the Management Board, composed primarily of Member State representatives.

Though the role played by EASO has been analysed and criticised since its inception (for example: how transparent is it? What does it actually do? How does its work actually help in practice?); the final nail in the coffin, so to speak, came with the current refugee crisis. Due to the large numbers of refugees entering Europe, mainly through Italy and Greece, some questioned whether CEAS was beginning to collapse. 

The first casualty was the Dublin Regulation, followed by the suspension of Schengen. In the midst of the early days of the massive refugee flows in Greece and Italy, we weren’t quite sure where EASO was or what it was doing. It was at this time of intense asylum pressure that we were all surprised at the departure announcement of Dr. Robert Visser, then EASO’s Executive Director. Depending on your perspective, the timing was either unfortunate or perfect.

EASO continued to provide COI, gather data and carry on with its business, yet it became increasingly obvious that the pressure needing attention was of a more practical nature, owing to the sheer number of people requiring to be received and processed under the CEAS. The crisis emphasised the weaknesses of the CEAS in dealing with the several challenges presented by the Italy and Greece situations, further exacerbated by rising tensions in other Member State (such as Hungary) and the increasingly negative discourse and approaches seen all over the continent.

Part of the response has been a revisiting of the drawing board to look at the CEAS, and possibly revise it. Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, has stated that “managing migration better requires actionon several fronts”, and one of these fronts is EASO.

On May 4th 2016, the Commission issued a press release entitled “Towards a sustainable and fair Common European Asylum System”, wherein it explained the idea behind the accompanying reform proposals. The press release focused on the need for changes, improvements, more efficiency and fairer processes throughout the Member States. This post will not explore the entire document, but focus on the EASO-related proposals. 

The proposed reform of EASO, as suggested by the Commission, essentially involves giving the Agency a much greater role to play in the context of the CEAS, including participation in the reformed Dublin procedure and the reformed EURODAC system on collecting data. Parallels have been drawn by Steve Peers between EASO’s expansion and the development of the European Border Guard. Again, the goals seem to be greater convergence, cooperation and assistance, aided by a proposed budget of a little under €365 million for the period 2017-2020, and a staff increase from 150 people to roughly 500. The proposals highlight the Commission’s intention to expand EASO’s role, especially in terms of actual operational and technical assistance in times of increased challenges to particular Member States.

All of these reform proposals are supplemented by a proposed change to EASO’s name, to become the European Union Agency for Asylum. This might finally eliminate Google’s confusion with the European Association for the Study of Obesity, also EASO!

Should the proposals be accepted, the Agency will be actively involved in several specific areas of the CEAS, including the operation of the reference key implemented through the Dublin Reform, and practical participation in the EURODAC system by taking fingerprints, collecting and processing personal data. Though the Commission claims that all proposed reforms are said to be compliant with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, this last reform proposal on the expansion of access to and processing of personal data might be a little at odds with Article 8 of the Charter. This Article ensures the protection of personal data yet through this new proposal, there is a significant increase in the data to be collected, stored and shared. The new rules apply to children as young as six years old and the information collected includes fingerprints, facial images, names, nationalities, details of birth, and all information relating to their asylum applications, relocation and removal. The information may be shared with third countries and the retention of this information has been increased for irregular border crossers and migrants from 18 months to five years. If these new rules are not wholly compatible with Article 8 of the Charter, this would mean that EASO, through its new tasks, would be violating this right. There is also the issue that, whilst EASO presently cannot be directly involved with the asylum processing and decision-making at national level, the proposals envisage a role for EASO in the early steps of application processing.

There are also a number of other proposed changes which deal with the relationship between the Agency and the Member States. Presently, the role played by the Member States regarding exchange of information is voluntary. Under the proposals, there is an obligation on Member States to cooperate with the Agency and to exchange information. While this duty may be considered a little harsh due to the forced cooperation, the Commission claims that this is necessary in order to achieve better convergence and also is in line with the principle of subsidiarity. The crisis showed that the Member States’ actions alone were not sufficient to prevent or deal with the crisis, hence the need for the EU level action.

Presently, EASO gathers information regarding COI and safe third countries and publishes general analysis and guidance. Under the proposed reform this function will be boosted, allowing the Agency to regularly review a Member State’s list of safe third countries, give information on countries that a Member State wishes to add to the list, and develop specific guidelines for best practices for the implementation of the CEAS. Essentially, in addition to the ability to support all aspects of the CEAS, the Agency will be able to provide specific advice tailored for individual Member States.

A much-needed improvement deals with EASO aiding Member States under pressure. Firstly, an expanded and comprehensive set of both operational and technical measures to give this assistance is being proposed.

Secondly, under the proposals the Agency will not have to wait for a Member State’s request for assistance. Although this request will still be an available option, the Agency would be able to provide practical support on its own initiative using an own initiative proposal. If this support proposal is rejected by the Member State, there will be the option for the Commission to intervene and force the assistance through the use of an implementing act. This promises to be a crucial change as it will allow the Agency to provide much more practical help, without having to rely on Member States’ requests for aid. From our end, we hope that this tool would also be used by EASO, and the Commission, to intervene in those situations where asylum-seekers or refugees are facing infringements of their fundamental or CEAS rights due to the inability or unwillingness of the Member State to effectively and efficiently handle a crisis or difficult situation.

Although these proposals are still relatively fresh and have been referred to as the “least contentious” of the stream of reform proposals released by the Commission, criticism and scepticism are already beginning to emerge. The New Federalist points out that even currently, EASO is “facing persistent difficulties to receive sufficient personnel from the Member States”, leading to the conclusion that “it remains unclear how the European Commission intends to increase Member State’s motivation to contribute to the CEAS”. Whilst this is a fair and valid observation, we also underline the importance of moving away from the emergency mind-set, based on reactive and short-term policies, to a more regular approach to asylum that focuses on processing applications in a way that is fair, effective and efficient. The current situation highlights the difficulties faced (or posed) by many Member States in complying with even the most basic norms of international refugee law, and of CEAS. We remain hopeful and optimistic that a stronger EASO, capable of prompt, efficient and targeted interventions remains a key component in the overall search for immediate as well as long-term solutions.

Do these proposals address any of the previous criticisms of the Agency? Certainly, the Agency’s recent activities in Italy and Greece practical effects of the Agency’s help should be seen through work in the Member States. However, it still doesn’t really deal with the issue of transparency, as mentioned before. EASO’s previous reports on their activities seemed to merely be a collection of points that did not really give a proper insight into what they actually did year to year. While they will be obliged to report to the Commission annually, with a view to spotting problems early and improving the quality of their functions, this is not a guarantee that the reports made by the Agency will be much of an improvement on those which came before. One can hope that with the overhaul and symbolic name changes that this aspect will change also. EASO does seem to be working towards improving transparency, as can be seen by the expansion of access to the COI portal.

It is excellent to see that the Commission recognises the need for change and is really attempting to ease the present burden and prevent future burden through its new proposals. Whether or not these will be sufficient or effective remains to be seen but before that analysis can begin, these proposals must first be adopted and implemented.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

EASO EU and Global Asylum-Related Migration Research Conference Report

On 16 May 2016 EASO held its Asylum-Related Migration Research Conference. This conference presented the efforts of the European Asylum Support Office itself as well as efforts by various other agencies in conducting research aimed at ensuring constructive and evidence-based policies related to migration. The result is a comprehensive overview of research and research-based modelling related to migration, and in particular asylum-related migration, presented below.

Session 1

The conference was introduced by a presentation of the EASO’s work and the context of asylum in the EU. The framework set by the Common European Asylum System is an imperative consideration in this regard.

EASO’s function is to ensure coherent implementation of the CEAS as well as to provide evidence-based policy input to the EU in order to safeguard the common practices of all Member States in relation to asylum policy.

EASO have set out three research aims to strive for in the immediate future, namely to conduct better research into the functioning of current migration law in Europe; to provide better support to policy developers on the basis of this; and to be able to give better advice in relation to asylum law in practice. This conference is the beginning of EASO’s ambitious objectives of strengthening its role as a support provider under the CEAS.

EASO’s research:
The research conducted by EASO has been concentrated into four clusters. These focus firstly on review of what is currently known in the area of migration and asylum. Secondly, the carrying out of empirical work by collecting data in order to analyse this field. Thirdly, the creation of models and tools in order to better streamline their work of improving the functioning of migration and asylum policies in Europe. Fourthly, to develop supervisory tools allowing the tracking of information sources.

The EU’s research:
The EU has arranged a number of conferences as well as policy review sessions, and has issued several publications addressing its priorities regarding migration research under its Horizon 2020 research programme. This focus on giving research a key role in the creation of new programmes has led to the emergence of a number of initiatives. One such key initiative is the Science4Refugees programme, which ‘matches talented refugees and asylum seekers who have a scientific background with positions in universities and research institutions’. Further, the EU’s Work Programme for 2016-2017, developed under the Horizon 2020 scheme, has set out several goals concerning the EU’s policies regarding migration. One area of policy development, entitled ‘A Stronger Global Actor’, aims, as the name suggests, to strengthen the EU’s position in a global context through ‘international cooperation calls and targeted initiatives relating to societal challenges’. Another area has been entitled ‘Towards a New Policy on Migration’. This policy area encourages the carrying out of research related to the origins of migration, and will, through evidence-based research, provide recommendations relating to ‘insights on migration, humanitarian assistance and development cooperation policies.’

The Societal Challenge 6 was also borne from the Horizon 2020 scheme. This programme, bearing the subheading ‘Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies’, aims to ‘to foster greater understanding of a culturally and socially rich and diverse Europe’ and ‘to enhance understanding of societal conditions, to ensure transformative and structural changes take account of these in promoting future prosperity, well-being and cohesion’ through its research-based recommendations provided to the European Commission. An Expert Advisory Group on Societal Challenge 6 met in February 2016 in order to further these aims, discussing, among other things, its research agenda as well as its role and objectives.

Some useful links to explore these issues further:

Session 2

The IOM:
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) provides assistance in four different areas of migration management, namely migration and development; facilitating migration; regulating migration; and forced migration. The IOM opened their Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) in Berlin in 2015. This centre aims to provide data on global migration issues in order to aid the development of effective migration policies. Through the provision of analysis of such issues, the GMDAC aims to enhance the IOM’s efforts in building the data capacities of the EU, as well as promote a better understanding of migration data and its usage. Further, the IOM was commission by EASO to conduct a literature review regarding the push and pull factors of asylum-related migration. The conclusion was that there is a relative consensus that socio-economic as well as political factors play a large role in determining the draw of certain groups of migrants to certain states. However, there is a divergence on issues such as demographic variables; historical, cultural and geographic factors; and environmental factors.

UN research:
The UNHCR’s New Issues in Refugee Research has published 278 papers since 1949, providing a comprehensive overview of research concerning refugees. The UNHCR has highlighted the importance of allowing refugees themselves to formulate the research agenda, in order for the research to best reflect the issues faced by refugees themselves. Further, the interpretation and presentation of data by journalists has been called into question by the UNHCR, as this has often been done without the scientific insight required in order to adequately present the findings of this research. Collecting data and capturing how to apply it operationally demands a particular understanding of the data and its relevance. Because of this, the journalistic presentation of data relating to asylum seekers and migrants is often somewhat distorted.

Session 3

Migration modelling:
Current migration modelling focuses on both net migration and individual flows on migrants. Consideration must be made to measurement of these flows, theories regarding them, and forecasts of future migratory flows. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no single model has been deemed conclusively superior. However, migration models are useful in predicting migratory flows through certain forecasting measures, and, consequently, to develop policies on the basis of this, e.g. through impact assessment, etc.

The Task Force on Migration was set up in 2016 in order to strengthen support to the European Commission in managing migration. This is also adjoined to the Horizon 2020 scheme, and is a part of the European Agenda on Migration.

In order to facilitate the further advancement of these objectives, the Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography will be opened in Brussels on 20 June 2016. Internal stakeholders in this launch are the Directorate-General (DG) for Migration and Home Affairs, DG Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, DG Research and Innovation, and the European Political Strategy Centre. External stakeholders are the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and the IOM, mentioned above. This centre will function as an information hub providing ‘continuous situational awareness on migration’, and will focus on socio-economic modelling, as well as qualitative and quantitative analysis, in order to improve our understanding of different factors in the integration of migrants, and the impact of migration on the EU. This will in turn provide foresight into the development of migration.

The RHOMOLO model is another important point of consideration. RHOMOLO is the ‘dynamic spatial general equilibrium model’ employed by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. This model analyses policies relating to, among others, migration. Issues such as labour market participation, unemployment, educational, and wages are considered in order to determine integration levels. The preliminary results of the RHOMOLO model is that high levels of expenditure on integration leads to the furthering of economic growth. In order for the EU to fully exploit the benefits of migration, it must develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of how to facilitate integration. Evidence-based research, of all the types presented above, leads to the enhancement of the EU’s capability in implementing better policies concerning migration and integration, which in turn facilitates economic growth and a better functioning of the labour market.

Session 4

The Fundamental Rights Agency:
The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency’s (FRA) mandate is to provide assistance and expertise on issues related to fundamental rights in the EU. In an effort to improve their capability of doing this effectively, FRA has conducted several surveys of migrants and ethnic minorities in order to collect reliable and comprehensive data on these matters. This include their minorities and discrimination survey, in order to facilitate the creation of evidence-based policies addressing discriminatory practices and accordingly to improve support for victims of such discrimination. In also includes their Roma survey, which addresses issues faced specifically by the Roma community in several EU Member States, and their survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jewish people.

Additionally, FRA has published several works relating specifically to migration and asylum in the EU, such as their Opinion concerning an EU common list of safe countries of origin, their Handbook on European law relating to asylum, borders and immigration, their report regarding fundamental rights at the EU’s external borders, and their ‘toolbox’ regarding legal entry channels to the EU for persons in need of international protection.

The Migration Policy Institute:
The Migration Policy Institute (MPI), part of the European University Institute, has conducted comprehensive surveying of forced migration. Particular focus has been directed at Syria, with a website set up presenting all facts gathered and reports and policy briefs produced in one place, so as to provide an efficient overview.

The REFMISMES Project has been another point of focus. This project seeks to identify policies and practices which facilitate the integration of refugees into the labour market in a selection of EU Member States. Analyses have been conducted, as well as specific country case studies. The countries of focus have been Austria, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. The result is a comprehensive overview of issues as well as literature concerning labour market integration in these states.

The issue of smuggling has also been addressed by the MPI, with a literature feed having been set up, as well as a comprehensive report also having been produced and published.

Concluding remarks

EASO managed to compile and present an impressive overview of asylum-related research through this conference. The stated commitment to conduct research and review literature in this field will undoubtedly strengthen their ability to fulfil their mandate. Further, the UNHCR’s commitment to allowing refugees themselves to shape the research being conducted in this field is especially promising.

However, the approach may be criticised for being too institutionalised. There is a clear absence of NGO-led research as well as research conducted in the academic sector, rendering this overview incomplete.

Allowing for a greater role for NGOs may better facilitate the inclusion of refugees in both the shaping and execution of research concerning asylum, and its use as a tool for advocacy may be strengthened. The wealth of information and data gathered, analysed and presented by NGOs is simply staggering and cannot be ignored, also because it presents perspectives that could be missing from the institutional approach to research. We appreciate the difficulty in mapping the extent of this research, yet encourage EASO to further liaise with the members of its Consultative Forum to see how best to tap into this valuable resource.

Additionally, whether this research is being used as a tool for constructing more evidence-based law or policies, or being used to formulate other strategies to better manage the current flow of refugees, is not made explicit. The exact effect and utilisation of the research presented is therefore still unclear. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to welcome this new approach as it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.