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Speech at the 41st Congress Session

Strasbourg 26 October 2021
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Dear esteemed members of the Congress,

Dear Ms Dourou,

Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen

I am very grateful for your invitation to contribute to this debate on the continuing challenges for cities and regions in the field of migration.

I appreciate such a focus of the 41st session on the topical issue of migration, as well as the fact that the Congress has already been very active on that theme. The Congress certainly has a legitimate voice in this area since, as rightly underlined by Ms Dourou in her speech, local and regional authorities have a major role to play in the reception and integration of refugees and migrants. They are indeed at the frontline to host and provide welfare support to newcomers.

I observed and admired this role during my fact-finding missions to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey. Dedicated Mayors reported the challenges they encountered and explained the humane and successful practical solutions found to face emergency situations.

For example, I was struck by the Gaziantep model, implemented in municipalities at the south-eastern border of Turkey with Syria. It was created to leave no-one behind despite the sudden influx of Syrian refugees which started 10 years ago. The cities of Gaziantep and Kilis suddenly had to double the capacity of the classrooms, build new housing, address water shortage and open employment needs.

Other big municipalities attracting migrants and refugees, such as Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul developed a successful cooperation with NGOs and bar associations to improve the living together, enhancing access to rights and cultural interactions. Many other good practices can be identified and be a source of inspiration for municipalities struggling with important influx of migrants.

Challenges recently increased everywhere because of the pandemic. Access to healthcare and housing, difficult in normal circumstances for refugees and migrants, became even more problematic because of the crisis. I exposed those challenges, and underlined some good-practices, when addressing the current affairs committee Meeting of the Congress on 16 September 2020 during an event on the lessons learnt during the Covid-19 outbreak. I then commended the many solutions found to accommodate migrants in shelters, as an alternative to makeshift camps which were contributing to the spreading of the virus. Policy decisions to empty immigration detention centres also created an additional burden on local and regional authorities to provide housing solutions. Measures were taken, solutions were found despite the difficulties. These solutions should be a source of inspiration to provide decent housing and develop alternative measures to immigration detention in all circumstances, as they should remain the norm beyond lockdown and crisis.

While past challenges are slowly solved, new difficulties constantly arise. The situation in Afghanistan didn’t provoke the migratory pressure our continent experienced in 2016, but it did impose to find quick fixes for persons in urgent need of protection in many Member States. Instrumentalisation of migrants is again sadly being observed, resulting in new migratory routes and provoking an increase of human rights violations against asylum seekers and migrants at member state’s borders. Although States have a duty to protect their borders and have the right to control entry, residence and expulsion of non-nationals, they also have the obligation, under CoE /ECHR standards among others, to respect and protect the fundamental rights of all human beings.

In support to authorities confronted with the challenges of migratory pressure and to contribute to the protection of the most vulnerable refugees and migrants, the CoE has recently adopted an Action Plan on Protecting vulnerable persons in the context of migration. The role of local authorities is acknowledged in the AP, namely through projects undertaken by the Intercultural Cities programme and its Inclusive Integration City Lab.

The AP, adopted by consensus in the CM, is a 5 years programme comprising 28 explicitly listed activities, some of them further developed into several concrete projects. It covers the three pillars of CoE’s mandate (Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law) and has a fourth pillar seeking to increase cooperation between MS. The listed activities involve over 20 thematical departments of the CoE and range from standard-setting initiatives (such as recommendations on migrant women and on age assessment), guidance notes for competent authorities or professionals, exchange of good practices and trainings. The proposed interventions build transversally on findings of the ECHR, key monitoring bodies, the work of the Commissioner for Human Rights as well as PACE and Congress reports, resolutions and recommendations.

My role as SRSG is to coordinate the implementation of the AP inside and outside the CoE, both in the development and the implementation phase. The Network of Focal Points on Migration, composed of representatives of migration and asylum authorities (mainly from Ministries of Interior) will contribute to its implementation at national level and to increasing cooperation between CoE MS.

The AP also foresees to enhance multilateral cooperation on migration through reinforced coordination and the creation of new synergies with key international partners (such as the EU, UNHCR, OHCHR and IOM). NGOs will also be closely associated, mainly through the CINGO and its recently appointed Committee on migration.

As a follow-up to the AP on migrant and refugee children which was concluded in 2019, the focus of this new AP is Vulnerable persons in the context of migration and asylum. These are defined as “persons found to have special needs after individual evaluation of their situation and are entitled to call on States’ obligation to provide special protection and assistance”. Solid dynamic references to CoE standards such as ECHR judgements and findings from monitoring bodies complement this broad definition. These standards serve as a guideline to Member States who are competent to “effectively identify” vulnerable migrants.

This new focus enables a continuation of many activities undertaken under the first action plan on refugee and migrant children, building on its achievements (such as the promotion of the recommendation on guardianship) and engaging in new projects (guidance on family-based care and on age-assessment for ex). It is also an opportunity to focus on other vulnerable groups such as women and girls, particularly timely as we are witnesses of Taliban’s devastating action in Afghanistan; or on access to healthcare for vulnerable groups (resulting in a guide to health literacy and a recommendation on equitable access to treatments).

The AP also refers to the need to ensure access to justice, information, legal aid and representation, especially for vulnerable persons. Good practices will be identified and promoted in that context, including at the local level.

Fostering participation and enhancing inclusion is the third pillar of this AP. This will translate in the further development of HELP courses to provide training to responsible authorities; in the promotion of CoE’s European Qualification Passport for Refugees, a wonderful tool, unique in Europe, to facilitate the recognition of refugee’s qualifications and contribute to their integration in the labour market. Another very concrete and useful tool that is only starting to be developed is called TOOLKID and will support educators to ensure inclusion of refugee children in the education system and society.

This Council of Europe’s AP, with its many concrete actions in support of national and local authorities in the field of asylum and migration, will hopefully contribute to ease some of the difficulties encountered in this area, as well as to the further promote the respect of CoE standards and values.


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