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European Standing Committee B
Wednesday 21 April 2004
[Mr. David Taylor in the Chair]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate where matters currently stand since the Prime Minister tabled the United Kingdom's proposals for new international approaches to asylum processing and protection in the spring of 2003. It is a little over a year since those proposals were put forward as a basis for discussion with our European partners and they have stimulated widespread debate.
Not everyone agreed with some of the details of our proposals, but I think that most recognised the need to look at the issues afresh and to work towards the better management of the asylum process globally, reducing unfounded applications and providing more equitable protection for genuine refugees.
At the core of our original proposals was the identification of the need for protection in the region. In its initial response to the UK's ideas, in the paper we are debating today, the European Commission endorsed the UK's analysis of the problem, but expressed some caution as to the possible detailed solutions. That caution reflected the debate that culminated in the discussions at Thessaloniki last June. It was clear that some of our proposals would be strongly resisted by some member States, particularly our ideas for transit processing centres. Like the Commission, we have listened to that debate and to the views expressed and our thinking has moved on in a number of respects. I should like to take this opportunity to confirm again that we have done no further work on transit processing, which is no longer on our agenda.
We also accepted that the idea of establishing zones of protection gave rise to unease in some quarters. None of our ideas for solutions were set in stone, although I stress that our focus remains clear: the strengthening of regional protection for the majority of the world's refugees who are unable to access asylum systems in the EU. In such cases, we believe that it is essential to strengthen protection in their region of origin, close to their homes, to ensure accessible and effective protection for people fleeing persecution and conflict and to work with those countries, which, at the end of the day, take on the far greater burden of the numbers involved and the associated social and economic costs.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Will the Minister give way?
The Chairman: Order. Interventions are not allowed at this point.
Caroline Flint: Following Thessaloniki and pending the Commission's further proposals on a possible
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EU-wide approach to these issues, we have moved away from the idea of zones of protection and are now looking to develop migration partnerships with third countries in the region of origin. The aim of such partnerships is to reduce the pressure on our asylum system while facilitating UK assistance with refugee caseloads in the partner country. We see them very much as modern partnerships, based on equality, where the two parties recognise that their migration issues are of common concern and need to be tackled together.
Our work in this area is still very much in the development stage, but we are clear that it will complement other initiatives that are designed to make such protection workable and, we hope, sustainable in the 21st century. I have in mind in particular the convention plus initiative of the High Commissioner for Refugees, but the Committee will also have seen from the Commission's more recent discussion paper, MIGRAPOL 67, that its forthcoming report to the Council seems likely to advocate the sort of flexible approach to tackling these issues on an EU-wide basis that are consistent with what we have in mind in our migration partnership ideas.
Apart from the recent presidency seminar, which looked specifically at a possible resettlement scheme and protected entry procedures, the Commission's latest discussion document represents a helpful indication of its likely thinking following its initial paper of June last year. It seems on course to present its substantive report to Council by June this year, as mandated by Thessaloniki, and we await its finalised recommendations with considerable interest.
The Chairman: We have until 3 o'clock for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time, so that there is ample opportunity for everyone to ask several questions. I also have two housekeeping issues to deal with: first, I am happy for jackets to be removed and, secondly, owing to an accident with my normal spectacles, my myopia might slow me down when identifying and calling hon. Members to speak.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I welcome you to the chair, Mr. Taylor, and I also welcome the constructive way in which the Minister opened the sitting. Does she accept that under the proposed European constitution, such matters become a shared competence? Does she further accept that a definition of a shared competence is:
''The Member States shall exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has not exercised, or has decided to cease exercising, its competence''?
That is the wording from the constitution. Does it not mean that, in the event of the constitution being adopted, matters under discussion today will be entirely within the control of the European Union rather than ourselves?
Caroline Flint: In proposing our ideas last year, we made it clear that our approach is complementary to an EU-wide approach. Where we can, we seek to work within the Union on directives that tackle issues of asylum and immigration. The Justice and Home
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Affairs Council recently agreed to the qualifications directive and we are working on the procedures directive.
With the constitution, I understand that we retain our opt-out clauses on issues that affect our national interests and border security, as we do in the matters under discussion and those that affect us within the Schengen area.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): In light of the Government's interesting idea for transit processing centres, what kind of places do they have in mind, what negotiations would they have to undertake to secure them and how might the administrative arrangements work? The Committee would find it useful to know the basis of the original Government proposal.
Caroline Flint: The Government recognised that there are clearly some issues surrounding the extent of refugees and the problems that they face. That was endorsed by the Commission's paper in various meetings over the past year and it has also been highlighted by the United Nations. Behind our initial consideration of the idea of the zones of protection and transit processing centres was the question of whether we could do something about the often illegal trafficking of people across continents to the European Union.
However, when the idea was discussed, several points were made about how it would be managed, which countries would opt for it and, when we reached the detail, how it would work in practice. We recognised that it was not viable, but that we could still consider other ideas, including projects with the United Nations to consider how the European Union might work better with countries in Africa that take the largest share of the burden of refugees.
The amount that the European Union spends on asylum and immigration is quite startling compared with the amount that the United Nations spends on refugees in those countries where they are closer to their countries of origin. We must also examine the migration partnerships idea, working with countries to help them with their refugee load and to identify nationals from those countries who are in the UK so that we can better work to remove them to their original country.
The debate has moved on. Therefore, I am not sure whether it is worth getting into a subject that was not discussed in detail. It was floated as an idea; it was not a blueprint. The basis of the original idea still stands: we cannot deal with those issues just nationally or on a European basis; we must work globally to address them in order to prevent those secondary movements into the European Union.
Mr. Llwyd: What about the risk that the proposals of the United Kingdom, the UNHCR and the Commission might lead to a shifting, rather than sharing, of the burden, bearing in mind that countries and regions of origin, as the Minister acknowledged, often receive more refugees than EU member states?
Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. When I spoke about migration
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partnerships, I used the term ''equal partnerships''. We shall be considering how—through use of our personnel or different kinds of support—we can support their case management of situations in those countries, as well as identifying where they can assist us in the return of their nationals from our country. That will be done in a spirit of recognising that the UN faces a huge problem in working in countries that overwhelmingly face the social and economic costs of refugees spilling over into them from other countries that are in conflict, or for any other reasons that cause people to seek refugee status.
The UN projects in which we are engaged with other EU member states are part of that culture and spirit of co-operation. It would not be in our interests to be seen as offloading any of our burden. That would not get the support of those countries. I stress that that approach complements any procedures on asylum and immigration that we develop in the UK or the EU for dealing with people as they arrive in a particular geographical area. To be honest, the consideration of that issue is long overdue.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): The Minister rightly emphasised that the Government's original proposals were intended to deal with the vile trade in human beings—trafficking and human smuggling—and those proposals would be supported by all parties. Will she confirm that the proposal for transit processing centres was essentially similar to the policy successfully pursued by the Australian Government? In view of the fact that it has worked for the Australians, why does she appear to be resigning from that proposal now?