A Common European Asylum System
16. The Hague Programme calls for the development
of the second phase of a Common European Asylum System (CEAS).
This would follow the adoption of the "minimum standards"
instruments in the first phase asylum package (including measures
on the definition of a refugee, reception conditions and asylum
procedures) and should result in the establishment of a common
asylum procedure in the EU and a uniform refugee status. The Programme
calls for an evaluation of the first stage measures prior to embarking
on the second stage. Our witnesses welcomed the evaluation of
the first-stage measures. According to ILPA such evaluation was
while JUSTICE emphasised the need for respect of international
refugee law and human rights standards.
The Government also welcomed evaluation as a step to be taken
before proceeding with the second phase of the CEAS.
However, the final element in the first phase package, the Procedures
Directive, has not been formally adopted yet and will not come
into force until 2007 at the earliest. Evaluation cannot meaningfully
begin until there is a record of implementation capable of evaluation.
17. Calls for evaluation of the agreed EU minimum
standards on asylum were linked with strong criticism by several
of our witnesses of the low standards adopted by some Member States
so far. According to Amnesty, "we have witnessed the adoption
of a very low common denominator of minimum standards that allows
Member States to continue competing with their restrictive policies
and that in some respects breach international law".
These concerns, directed in particular at the Asylum Procedures
Directive, were also shared by ILPA
and JUSTICE. Both
organisations stressed the need to include high standards of protection
in the second stage of the CEASwith ILPA calling for "common
high standards, rather than common low standards".
The Government on the other hand considered that the fact that
Member States had reached common ground on these measures was
18. We fully share our witnesses' concerns
regarding some of the standards adopted in the first stage of
EU asylum measures. The Committee has repeatedly highlighted in
its reports the danger of Member States reaching agreement on
the basis of the lowest common denominator, which would not provide
an adequate level of protection for asylum seekers and could jeopardise
existing levels of protection in those Member States currently
observing higher standards than those required by the EU. We believe
that a detailed evaluation of the implementation of these instruments
is essential to ensure that it is consistent with international
human rights and refugee law standards.
19. A central question in the development of
a Common European Asylum System is how far it is desirable and/or
feasible for Member States to harmonise their asylum systems.
The Hague Programme calls for the adoption before the end of 2010
of "a common asylum procedure and a uniform status for those
who are granted asylum or subsidiary protection". In its
paper Refugees: Renewing the vision,
the Refugee Council welcomed this approach, calling for a "single,
simple procedure" for all people seeking protection in the
EU. Most of our witnesses
accepted the move to the second stage of the CEAS envisaged by
the Hague Programme, but called for the adoption of higher standards
(see above). The Law Society was more sceptical of the creation
of a uniform refugee status in the EU, but stressed the need to
protect due process and access to justice for the asylum seeker
in the development of EU legislation in this field.
We believe that the concept of a Common European Asylum System,
which has been a central objective of JHA policy since Tampere,
remains valid to ensure consistent standards across the EU and
to prevent "asylum shopping".
20. However, in view of the difficulties in reaching
agreement on minimum standards in the first place, and the tendency
to adopt the lowest common denominator, we questioned the Programme's
ambition to achieve a CEAS by 2010. Ms Flint said that the 2010
deadline "was probably unrealistic".
The Government's view was that "to have a system whereby
there is one form of processing applicable to all is not something
that would work" emphasis should be placed on implementation
and evaluation. Despite
their willingness to take part in the first stage of the EU asylum
system, the Government appear to be reluctant to move towards
the development of the second stageperhaps
because decision-making in these areas has moved, from 1 January
2005, from unanimity to qualified majority voting. The impact
of the change in the voting procedures in the Council on the development
of the CEAS remains to be seen. We agree with the Government
that proper evaluation of the first stage is essential before
embarking on consideration of second stage measures and that the
deadline of 2010 is probably too ambitious. We believe that that
evaluation should be carried out by an independent body of experts,
whose findings should be published. It is essential that any new
EU standards on asylum should ensure a high level of protection
in accordance with international human rights and refugee law.
21. The Hague Programme also invites the Commission
to present a feasibility study on the joint processing of asylum
applications within the Union. This would entail a move away from
the processing of asylum applications nationally to more centralised
forms of processing. The Committee examined this option in its
Report on extra-territorial asylum processing
and rejected the idea of joint processing of asylum applications
in the EU on legal, human rights, practical and financial grounds.
We do not believe that joint processing of asylum applications
in the EU is the right way forward. In our view, regardless of
the level of harmonisation reached in the EU, the key lies with
improving the asylum process and decision-making in Member States.
UNHCR highlighted this point in its evidence, which stressed that
"the harmonisation of asylum systems necessitates more than
the adoption of common rulesit requires the introduction of measures
to improve the quality of asylum decision-making across the 25
UNHCR referred to the "Quality Initiative"a joint
project it runs with the Home Office, which it recommends that
the Government promote during the United Kingdom's Presidency
of the EU. Ms Flint
told us that in principle she could agree to that.
We welcome this approach and will monitor its progress during
A European Asylum Office
22. The Hague Programme calls for the facilitation
of practical co-operation between the national asylum services
of Member States culminating in the creation, after a common asylum
procedure has been established, of a "European support office
for all forms of co-operation between Member States relating to
the CEAS". There are many views on what the powers and tasks
of this Office should be. UNHCR said that it would support a European
Asylum Office, as an institutional mechanism to provide advice
and co-ordinate practical harmonisation and burden-sharing efforts,
drawing input from governmental and non-governmental sources.
ILPA envisaged the European Asylum Office as a system of audit
and evaluation, not by Member States but by independent observers.
The Government saw some benefit in the pooling of information
and sharing of practice and expertise across the EU, but were
against the Office becoming a common point for the processing
of asylum applications.
23. We believe that a European Asylum Office
could assist practical co-operation between national asylum authorities,
through the exchange of information and best practice. In our
Report on extra-territorial asylum processing we recommended the
establishment of an independent documentation centre managed on
an EU basis.
The European Asylum Office could take on this role in co-operation
with UNHCR. We see less value in the Office taking the role of
an auditing/evaluating body. This could cause unnecessary duplication
with the work of other structures specifically established to
evaluate the implementation of EU measures in the JHA field. Still
less should the Office develop a centralised decision-making role.
24. While making no specific proposals on extra-territorial
asylum processing, the Hague Programme calls for an evaluation
of existing arrangements and for studies looking at joint processing
of asylum applications outside the EU. The prospect of processing
asylum claims directed at Member States outside the EU was rejected
almost unanimously by our witnesses. The Law Society expressed
concern about difficulties in the applicants' access to legal
advice and representation;
JUSTICE was "not persuaded" by proposals on such studies,
noting that there was no justification for the inclusion of such
a reference in the Programme;
and ILPA agreed. It noted that the idea was "highly ambiguous"
and pointed to various studies, including by the Commission, which
questioned the feasibility, practicality and legality of extra-territorial
Committee shares this view. We highlighted all these concerns
in our Report Handling EU Asylum Claims: New Approaches Examined.
We believe that studies on extra-territorial processing
are a distraction from the central objective of improving asylum
procedures in Member States.
23 p 30. Back
p 41. Back
Q 9. Back
p 23. Back
pp 30-31. Back
p 41. Back
pp 31, 41. Back
Q 8. Back
Minimum Standards in Asylum Procedures, 11th Report, Session
2000-01, HL Paper 59; Minimum Standards of Reception
Conditions for Asylum Seekers, 8th Report, Session 2001-02,
HL Paper 49; and Defining refugee status and those in
need of international protection, 28th Report, Session 2001-02,
HL Paper 156. Back
London, June 2004. Back
Paragraph 12. Back
p 46. Back
"Asylum shopping" in the EU context is used to describe
the phenomenon where an asylum seeker applies for asylum in more
than one Member State or chooses one Member State in preference
to others on the basis of a perceived higher standard of reception
conditions or social security assistance. Back
Q 9. Back
Q 8. Back
See also letter of 21 December 2004 from Caroline Flint to Lord
Grenfell, Appendix 5. Back
Handling EU Asylum Claims: New Approaches Examined, 11th
Report, Session 2003-04, HL Paper 74. Back
p 53. Back
p 53. Back
Q 15. Back
UNHCR's recommendations for the new multi-annual programme in
the area of freedom, security and justice, paragraph. 27. Back
p 31. Back
Q 8. Back
Handling EU Asylum Claims: New Approaches Examined,
paragraph 150. Back
p 46. Back
p 41. Back
p 31. Back
Op cit, footnote 46. Back