20th Jan 2019

Malta to host EU asylum agency

  • Malta has seen a high number of migrants relative to its population (Photo: nobordernetwork)

Malta is to host the EU's Asylum Support Office, a new European agency whose remit is to help member states in dealing with irregular migrants.

The agency, Malta's first since it joined the EU, was awarded to the Mediterranean island on Tuesday (1 December) with the backing of 22 out of 27 member states, according to a report in the Times of Malta.

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The office, due to open some time next year, is intended to deliver help both with countries' day-to-day operational requirements in dealing with refugees and with so-called emergency situations where a mass influx of asylum seekers lands on their doorstep.

Cyprus and Bulgaria were also in the running to host the agency, which will have an annual €50 million budget and a staff of 100.

French interior minister Eric Besson told journalists ahead of the announcement: "France clearly supports Malta to get the seat."

"We have to end this asylum 'supermarket'," he added.

Asylum policies vary widely across the EU. In 2008, for example, virtually no Iraqis were recognised as refugees in Greece, while 91 percent of the Iraqi asylum seekers who ended up in Germany were given international protection

France for its part last year resettled 92 refugees from Malta and in 2010 will take in "around 80" other asylum seekers.

Human rights organisations and refugee advocates back the principle of a more harmonised European asylum system but issued a note of concern at the announcement.

Advocacy groups worry the focus is on preventing irregular immigration rather than on protection of the vulnerable.

"The creation of a European Asylum Support Office has the potential to minimize this asylum lottery. However, at the negotiation table member states are opposing new rules which aim to achieve a more harmonised European asylum system based in higher standards of protection for refugees," Kris Pollet, a senior policy officer with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles told EUobserver.

The group also worries that a European asylum system will lack oversight from the European Parliament and input from independent experts, such as academics and NGOs.

Amnesty International also welcomed the "creation of a common area of protection" as "a step in the right direction" but worries that the EU actions proposed on migration "are all directed towards achieving an effective and sustainable return policy" and "not on a rights-based approach."

"Policies in this field, including in co-operation with third countries, must be guided by the principle of

safeguarding the human dignity and human rights of migrants," the group said in a statement ahead of the announcement.

"In practices seen in member states this has often proven not to be the case."

The group went on to say that in many instances policies have given rise to violations of fundamental rights of migrants, particularly arbitrary detention and forcible return.

The ECRE also noted that the member state chosen to host the new agency has a history of anti-immigrant politics, with "illegal" immigration in recent years becoming one of the country's top priorities both nationally and at the EU level.

"Malta ... does not have today the best record in welcoming refugees," said Mr Pollet.

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