SOC/175

European Refugee Fund

Brussels, 2 June 2004

OPINION 
 
of the European Economic and Social Committee

on the

Proposal for a Council Decision establishing the European Refugee Fund 
for the period 2005-2010

COM(2004) 102 final - 2004/0032 (CNS)

     
 
 
 
   

 

Procedure

On 23 February 2004 the Council decided to consult the Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Proposal for a Council Decision establishing the European Refugee Fund for the period 2005-2010

(COM(2004) 102 final – 2004/0032 (CNS)).

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 5 May 2004. The rapporteur was Ms Cassina.

At its 409th plenary session (meeting of 2 June 2004), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 184 votes to three with twelve abstentions.

1.       Introduction

1.1        On 28 September 2000, the Council adopted Decision No. 2000/596 establishing a European Refugee Fund for the 2000-2005 period (ERF I). It was allocated a budget of €36 million over the five-year period. The programme represented the first step in the necessary rationalisation and structuring for actions which had been successively based on annual budget headings since 1997, principally at the behest of the European Parliament1. The EESC welcomed the proposal for a decision at the time2.

1.2        Little more than a year from the 31 December 2004 deadline (the end of the period covered by ERF I), the Commission has analysed the experience gained by the Member States and the Community under ERF I, organised a review conference3, and has had an impact assessment4 drawn up in preparation for the proposal for a new stage in the programme. The review also took account of the effects of, and synergies with, other Community actions and programmes5.

1.3        In the light of the accumulated experience, on 12 February 2004 the Commission published a Proposal for a Council Decision establishing the European Refugee Fund for the period 2005-2010, the subject of the present opinion.

2.       Content of the Commission proposal

2.1        The Commission proposes the establishment of a fund (ERF II) with a budget of €687 million over a six-year period to support Member State action for the reception, integration and voluntary repatriation of third-country nationals or stateless persons having refugee status6, requiring international protection (within the framework of a resettlement scheme), enjoying a form of subsidiary protection, having applied for one of the above-mentioned forms of protection or enjoying temporary protection7.

2.2        Eligible actions. Actions eligible for ERF II co-financing in the Member States cover a broad spectrum relating to reception, integration and voluntary repatriation schemes. Co-financing may more specifically be available for: reception infrastructure; material aid and medical and psychological care; social and administrative assistance; language assistance, education and training as well as help with finding work; improvements to reception procedures; sharing of the values enshrined in the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights; promoting information for the local host population and participation of beneficiaries in civil and cultural life; promoting self-sufficiency of beneficiaries; actions to promote the involvement of local authorities, NGOs and the general public; information and advice on repatriation and help with reintegration in the country of origin.

2.2.1        Emergency measures in the event of implementation of temporary protection mechanisms may also be co-financed (up to 80% of cost), for reception, accommodation, subsistence, medical and psychological assistance, staff and administration costs and logistical and transport costs.

2.2.2        10% of the ERF II budget is set aside for Community actions, managed directly by the Commission and intended to finance Community cooperation, pooling of experience, innovative pilot projects, research and the application of new technologies to refugees and management of actions geared to them.

2.3        ERF II implementation. The Member States and the Commission are jointly responsible for implementing ERF II.

2.3.1        The Commission lays down guidelines for the multiannual programmes, ensures that management and control systems are in place in the Member States and operate smoothly, and implements Community measures. The Commission is assisted by a committee under the terms of Decision 1999/468/EC.

2.3.2        The Member States are responsible for implementing national actions, setting up a "Responsible Authority" with legal personality and management capacity; they are responsible in the first instance for the financial control of actions, and cooperate with the Commission in collecting statistics.

2.3.3        The Member States and the Commission work together to ensure that results are disseminated, transparency is guaranteed and actions are cohesive with and complementary to other relevant instruments and initiatives.

2.4        Programmes. Two multiannual programme phases are planned (2005-2007 and 2008-2010). The Member States submit the draft three-year programme to the Commission, which approves them within three months, after checking for compatibility with the guidelines through the committee procedure. The multiannual programmes are implemented by means of annual work programmes.

2.5        Distribution of resources. Each Member State receives a fixed annual amount of €300,000; for the new Member States, the sum is €500,000 per annum for the first three years.

2.5.1        The remainder of the available annual resources is broken down between the Member States as follows: 35% in proportion to the number of persons who, over the three previous years, have benefited from refugee status, international protection under a resettlement scheme or subsidiary protection; 65% in proportion to the number of persons who, over the three previous years, have requested asylum or enjoyed temporary protection. Part of the annual allocation may be used for technical and administrative assistance. The Fund's financial contribution takes the form of a non-refundable grant; however, if an irregularity is ascertained, repayment is demanded with interest for any default at the rate applied by the ECB plus 3.5%. In order to obtain co-financing segments subsequent to the first one of the programme, Member States must submit a report and declarations of expenditure certified by a service independent of the responsible authority.

2.5.2        The Community contribution to Member State actions may not exceed 50% of the total cost; it may rise to 60% for innovative or transnational actions and up to 75% for Member States covered by the Cohesion Fund.

2.6        Evaluation. The Commission will submit an initial intermediate report by 30 April 2007, and a second intermediate report by 31 December 2009. Lastly, there will be an ex-post evaluation report by 31 December 2012.

3.       Comments

3.1        The EESC's overall appraisal of the Commission's proposal is highly positive, seeing it as a potentially significant step towards putting into practice both the part of Title IV of the Treaty regarding the right of asylum and the decisions of the Tampere and other European Councils which laid down guidelines and implementing methods for visa, asylum and immigration policy. Failure to implement these decisions or agreements reached by the Council on matters which weaken the original proposal and enable wide legislative discrepancies between Member State laws to persist  would probably make the Fund less effective than it could be. The EESC is disappointed to see that the content of the directive on refugee status, as recently adopted by the Council8, falls far short of  both the Commission’s proposals9 and what the EESC had called for in its opinion10.

3.1.1        The programme's importance is self-evident, purely in view of the fact that there are some 400,000 new asylum seekers each year11; they bring with them a burden of human suffering which must be met with solidarity, material, moral and psychological support, decent reception conditions, proper services, transparent and efficient procedures, an opportunity for active integration into the community by means of a socially-oriented job or activity and, in the event of a freely expressed desire to return, risk-free repatriation.

3.2        The budget (€687 million over six years as against €36 million over the five years of the previous programme) appears substantial, but the EESC would point out that ERF I’s resources were very limited compared with the real needs of refugees. It welcomes the fact that with the proposal for the 2007-2013 financial perspectives, priority is given to the chapter concerning security, justice, migration and asylum, and that progressively greater resources are to be allocated to this area. The budget for ERF II is consistent with this approach.

3.2.1        ERF II firstly represents the necessary mutual effort to carry out an important policy and secondly, it shows that the Community institutions are aware that the problems connected with Title IV of the Treaty cannot be resolved without a major shift towards responsibility shared between all the players: actions which are strategically well-conceived, efficiently implemented and backed by civil society and local administration also have the effect of consolidating rights, instruments and mechanisms geared to implementing a common policy on asylum. The EESC points out that the effect of ERF II must be to complete and strengthen existing national measures; it cannot be a substitute for what has been achieved so far. In particular, the involvement of the social partners and civil society actors must not be reduced: on the contrary, it should be stepped up and improved.

3.2.2        The share of the budget resources earmarked for Community actions rises from 5% for ERF I to 10% for ERF II. The EESC would point out that in its opinion on ERF I, it called for 10% to be set aside for Community actions. It would emphasise the need to stand by this percentage, if the actions undertaken are to achieve two essential objectives: supporting the development of transnational and innovative initiatives (including from organised civil society); and providing financial backing for studies, research and experience-sharing between all the Member States.

3.3        The breakdown of resources between the various actions (reception, integration and voluntary repatriation) is also balanced and reflects both current circumstances in the Member States and foreseeable future flows of asylum seekers or others eligible for different forms of protection. Co-financing is set in part in accordance with the five target groups of individuals, and reflects the present situation in the Member States, whereas the multiannual programmes, broken down into annual management periods, will enable adjustments to be made in the event of any unexpected developments. The committee procedure will also provide for collective monitoring of the implementation process, and will facilitate the circulation of good practices and innovative actions. The EESC considers that a substantial portion of the resources needs to be channelled to reception and integration work, and hopes that the Member States will not put excessive emphasis, within the multiannual programmes, on repatriation efforts.

3.3.1        The EESC warmly welcomes the fact that help with finding work is included among the integration measures, since the ability to provide for one’s needs – or at least go a significant way towards doing so – boosts confidence and a feeling of having a place in society. It also helps to avoid lengthy periods of unemployment and scarce resources pushing young people into marginal or possibly illegal activities. The EESC would, however, emphasise the need to offer working conditions enabling the final beneficiaries of ERF II to take an active part in the procedures and activities which concern them. The EESC expresses its disappointment that the Council’s recent decision on refugee status leaves it up to the Member States to decide if refugees may or may not work, and recalls that in its opinions12, it has always emphasised the importance of facilitating their employment: the EESC considers work to be a right admitting no form of discrimination.

3.3.2        The EESC also suggests that a degree of priority be attached to cultural and psychological awareness training for administrative or police officials coming into contact with refugees, asylum-seekers and people enjoying other forms of protection. This is also needed in order  to counter the all too often negative image and stereotypes of refugees conveyed by the press and media. Initiatives to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between the cultures of such people and host country citizens also represent a major contribution to integration and the social consensus necessary if ERF II is to be effective in practice.

3.4        The EESC agrees with the overall strategic approach to the implementation of the programme through guidelines, multiannual programmes managed year-by-year, two intermediate Commission reports and an ex-post report: this approach reflects the thinking behind other implementation mechanisms previously put into motion by the Member States and the Community, demonstrating the effectiveness of a method which facilitates proper sharing of responsibilities between the Community and the Member States, in application of the principle of subsidiarity understood as a shared responsibility. ERF II must be more than simply an instrument for sharing out resources between Member States; as argued in point 3.1, it should seek to take a step in the direction of a common asylum policy. Given that not all the legislative instruments proposed in order to create such a policy have been adopted, implementing ERF II may also help the Member States to take the outstanding decisions with greater awareness and clarity.

3.4.1        Setting up a responsible authority in every Member State will contribute greatly to increasing the unity and cohesiveness of national programmes, ensuring that their implementation is transparent and correct, and fostering the necessary links with the general public and civil society. The EESC highlights the importance the proposal attaches to consultation, participation and joint responsibility of the relevant players from the outset, when multiannual programmes are drawn up. This accent on involving civil society organisations and local authorities is crucial if the necessary account is to be taken of the experience built up in the field, if a social debate is to be held, and if consensus and the consequent governance in this sphere are to be achieved. This is an aspect which the EESC has repeatedly stressed in its opinions, and which it is pleased to see figuring in the Commission's text.

3.4.1.1       The Committee considers it particularly important that NGOs should be guaranteed easy access to reception and transit centres so that they can provide assistance at the point of initial arrival. The scope of their work in this regard could be usefully enhanced by including it under a specific Community action.

3.4.2        The accumulated experience in all the Member States over the years clearly shows the effectiveness of partnerships between national and local authorities on the one hand, and civil society organisations on the other. The EESC hopes that this wealth of cooperation will not be wasted when ERF II is implemented, but rather will be given new and better designed tools.

3.5        ERF II addresses the issue of different circumstances in the various Member States and upholds the central criterion for the distribution of resources according to the numbers of persons in the target groups in the Member States. The EESC points out that careful attention will have to be paid to these differences – especially the varying stages of development of the relevant Member State policies – when proposing the guidelines for the multiannual programmes.

3.5.1        It is of at least symbolic significance that the fixed annual amounts allocated to the new Member States for the first three years of the programme are greater than those reserved for the existing EU 15. It is true that these countries have not yet built up much experience in this area, and some of them will be situated on the EU's external borders. Fitting into the general flow of existing asylum policies in the current 15 Member States, and the ability to make use of the relevant Community instruments, is therefore crucial. It will be particularly important to make the experience of the EU 15 available to the new Member States and provide them with special support, in part by giving priority to Community actions designed to help them develop the administrative and managerial capacities required in connection with asylum.

3.6        The EESC would draw particular attention to the need to make the ERF II financial implementing procedures as streamlined and efficient as possible and to prevent irregularities arising from complex or unclear procedures; civil society organisations working with refugees and those receiving various types of protection must not be weighed down by procedures which are complicated and/or difficult to put into practice. This applies to both Member State and Community actions. An NGO, however properly subject to strict transparency conditions, has an operating method and flexibility requirements quite distinct from those of a construction company which wins a tender to build a reception centre. The EESC is concerned that the contracts signed by the responsible authorities with civil society organisations may not make the obligations and responsibilities sufficiently clear, compelling these organisations to focus more on administrative niceties and certification of expenditure than on the action's effectiveness in ensuring that the target group’s rights are upheld and its needs met.

3.6.1        The EESC also considers that the interest applied to overdue sums to be recovered in the event of improper use should be purely symbolic to avoid the danger of Member States, in order to protect their own interests, imposing excessively restrictive procedures on tenders, again to the detriment of NGO efficacy and involvement. The EESC points out that in none of the Member States is asylum policy operated by public bodies alone, and that in some of them refugees and other protected persons would be in a hopeless situation except for the action and assistance of NGOs. The EESC therefore calls for the ERF II implementing provisions to reflect these concerns.

3.7        The EESC asks the Commission to press the Member States to define common criteria for collecting data. The quantitative aspect of ERF II is as important as the qualitative one, since under ERF II co-financing resources are determined by the figures for the different categories of persons having refugee status, enjoying some other form of protection, or seeking them.

3.8        The Member States should consult NGOs and the social partners when carrying out the evaluations under Article 26(2).

4.       Conclusions

4.1        The EESC considers that the proposal for a European Refugee Fund (ERF) for the period 2005-2010 is justified, is equipped with significant resources and is organised in such a way as to facilitate the joint responsibility of the Member States and the Community. It also stresses that reception and integration must continue to be seen as the cornerstone of a sound asylum policy.

4.2        The EESC appreciates the fact that, under the proposal, the Member States and the responsible authorities they are to set up will have the task of involving all relevant players in an ever-more effective partnership, especially civil society organisations and regional and local authorities. However, it stresses that ERF II implementing provision s must ensure effective action and straightforward, transparent procedures for actors other than the Member States.

4.3        The EESC underlines the need to define common criteria for compiling data on refugees, in part in order to ensure a fair balance between actions undertaken in different countries and comparability between them, and urges that Community actions focus primarily on enhancing and sustaining the administrative and managerial capabilities of the new Member States.

4.4        The EESC hopes that a decision on the ERF II proposal will be taken without delay and will be backed by appropriate and transparent implementing provisions.

Brussels, 2 June 2004.

The President

of the

European Economic and Social Committee

The Secretary-General

of the

European Economic and Social Committee

Roger Briesch

Patrick Venturini

__________________

1  Rapporteur: Mr Gérard Deprez.


2  OJ C 168 of 16.6.2000 (rapporteur: Mrs zu Eulenburg).


3  30 and 31 October 2003.


4  SEC(2004) 161 of 12 February 2004, Commission Staff Working Paper: Proposal for a Council Decision establishing the European Refugee Fund for the period 2005-2010 – Extended Impact Assessment {COM(2004) 102 final}.


5  Most particularly: the budget headings which in 2003 and 2004 funded pilot integration projects; the proposed establishment of an agency to manage the EU’s external borders; the use of the EQUAL programme for integrating asylum-seekers in the labour market, etc.


6  Status defined by the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 as amended by the Protocol of 31 January 1967.


7  Within the meaning of Directive 2001/55/EC.


8  Adopted on 29 April 2004.


9  Proposal for a Council Directive on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third-country nationals and stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection, in OJ C 51 E of 26.2.2002.


10  EESC opinion  in OJ C 221 of 17.9.2002 (rapporteur: Ms Le Nouail-Marlière).


11  Arrivals have been falling over the last two years but, clearly, the possibility of a sudden upsurge can never be ruled out. It should be remembered that because trends are identified on the basis of national, unharmonised statistics,  they may be  strongly influenced by the different policies applied by the Member States and how they are implemented in practice.


12  EESC opinion on the Proposal for a Council Directive laying down minimum standards on the reception of applicants for asylum in Member States, point 4.3, in OJ C 48 of 21.2.2002 (rapporteur: Mr Mengozzi), and the opinion on the above-mentioned proposal on refugee status, point 3.7.1, in OJ C 221 of 17.9.2002 (rapporteur: Ms Le Nouail-Marlière).


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