Beate Gminder and Esteban Alberto Castro Fernandez address the challenges of migration and discuss sustainable solutions

The Deputy Director-General in charge of the “The Task Force Migration Management” in DG Migration and Home Affairs (HOME), Beate Gminder and Esteban Alberto Castro Fernandez, Head of Sector-DG Home, explain the significance of diversity, analyze the new challenges that the European Commission is confronted with and present ways in which the European Union can manage the issue of migration.

 

Many people consider funding to be a boring job. Do you consider your work to be exciting, or are there many boring days in Brussels?

(laughs) No, neither boring days nor a boring job! Funding is THE  tool  to bring to life EU policies and is a key enabler to make abstract policies concrete.  In migration, border and security policies, we are also helping many people, a lot of them coming from third countries, leaving behind difficult situations, and it is thanks to funding that we are able to assist them and welcome them in the best way possible whilst their asylum claim is examined to determine if they need protection or should be returned. We also fund border surveillance and protection and police cooperation, all exciting topics and projects!

Are field visits a challenge?  How does it feel to come in close contact with the beneficiaries? Have there been many awkward or scary moments? Is there a memorable moment you wish to share?

Beate: Field visits are for me a very useful experience and quite rewarding. I can see concretely what EU funding is paying for and I can better assess where the gaps and possible needs are, so that we can find solutions together with the national authorities.

Visits are typically well prepared, so awkward or scary moments do very seldomly occur. Memorable moment happen on all visits, but I can recollect well the last time I visited the temporary facility on Lesvos, where we met with an artist couple in the camp. They had turned their tent into an art exhibition, showcasing the different paintings they made and were so proud to show us around.  It reminds us that people are resilient, making something out of their life wherever they are. Sometimes many people want to talk to me at the same time and then it can feel a bit overwhelming. Field visits test also regularly my stomach, being the many different foods offered to taste or a going along on a patrol with the Hellenic Coast Guard on a patrol vessel funded by the EU with state of the art technique. 

Given that you cooperate with all MS, how easy is to tackle so many different priorities, different political agendas, and different cultural perspectives?

Beate: As the EU motto says, we are united in diversity. In practice, we work very well with all Member States, which share a common goal to uphold and manage our common European borders and our common European asylum system. The challenges and priorities are often very similar. The cultural diversity makes it interesting to learn from each other and exchange best practices. With a lot of priorities, the only way to be able to deliver is to have an excellent team behind you and keep a good team spirit. And to listen carefully to everyone and explain why you choose a certain course of action based on factual information.

Have you ever felt that you are being discriminated based on your sex?

Beate: Myself I have been very lucky and I benefited from fantastic female mentors during my career. I am trying to give back that experience to young women (but also men!) as well. Talking of common European values, gender equality and equal opportunities are a cornerstone of our values. And whilst the message to young women in Europe today has to be that hard work and professionalism can get you everywhere you want, it is clear this equally applies to young men! There might be moments where as a woman you will be looked at more critically because of your gender, and I think all women can share such experiences. Your own national framework also plays an important role there. In the European Commission, with so many nationalities, I have often had the feeling, understanding the cultural frame of each individual mattered more (in the positive and negative) than gender.

Do you find it easier to cooperate with public bodies, the private sector, NGOs or International Organizations?

Esteban: Our funding structure in DG HOME limits a bit the participation of NGOs (although we have some cool projects) and private sector (under direct management); most of our contacts are either with public bodies or international organisations. In this respect, cooperation is different as usual rules and obligations to apply to one or the other are not exactly the same.  Having said this, cooperation most of the time depends on the person sitting in front of you and communication is key in these occasions in order to achieve the results and agreements you are looking for.

Many TCN remain on European territory, while the influx continues and is expected to increase following the lifting of pandemic measures, the real needs of reception countries remain extremely high. Why was it chosen to reduce the funding of first reception member states in the upcoming programmatic period compared to the previous one?

Beate: It depends how you look at that question:  The EU financial support for Asylum, Migration and Integration (AMIF) and for border management (BMVI) will increase in the new financial period 2021-2027, and Member States basic allocations are set to increase equally. Greece’s initial allocation for 2021-2027 will for instance be 60% higher than that of the previous funding period for AMIF.

Already now, a significant financial envelope has  been put aside under a thematic facility  to be used for dedicated priority funding. After the 2015 migration crisis, the EU attributed substantial reinforcements through emergency assistance and ad hoc budget top-ups. With the situation under control, low arrivals and substantial decongestion of the reception system, that emergency assistance is currently scaled back in Greece. But it is clear that budgets are available for first reception Member States and for new emergencies. The Commission stands ready to top up the national allocations and support first reception Member States also in this new programming period, as it is for instance doing now in Lithuania.

Furthermore, given that the effective and long-term integration of third-country nationals requires as many or even more resources than their short-term reception, how does the EU intend to tackle this challenge at a European level?

Esteban: The key on integration starts with changing the mindset of EU citizens as well as of MS authorities by recognizing the value added that third country nationals can bring to our diverse EU society. In this context, national policies will have to go hand in hand with the different EU funding mechanism like the new European Social Fund (ESF+) which will support actively the social inclusion of third country nationals under its projects.

I think an important element is the adoption of a comprehensive national integration strategy which could encompass different needs and profit from the synergies of all the EU funding instruments and, why not, other available sources of funding. Complementarities are crucial.

What is the dividing line between the actions that can be supported by the Migration and Home Affairs Funds (AMIF, ISF, BMVI) and the European Social Fund (ESF+), as the concept of early integration is not clearly defined? e.g. Could actions like SILs which serve a dual purpose meeting basic needs through housing but also promoting integration) be funded under ESF+?

Esteban:  Under Home Affairs  funds, integration activities towards third country nationals can be supported only under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). The reply to your question is simple and linked to the delineation efforts and synergetic spirit that characterizes the 2021-2027 Programming period. The 2021-2027 AMIF should mainly focus on tailor-made measures implemented during the reception phase of integration of third country nationals (TCNs) and horizontal measures, such as basic language training at the arrival and reception phase civic orientation courses as well as the promotion of a constructive dialogue between the third countr nationals and the hosting societies. The European Social Fund (ESF+) will in principle fund long-term integration activities such as education, employment and inclusion measures, especially for the most vulnerable, including third-country nationals, migrants and people with a migrant background more broadly. In the case of the Semi Independent Living apartments for unaccompanied minors as the integration activities are linked to the reception system in the country, AMIF seems more adequate funding resource.

How does DG Home view potential new challenges related to developments in Afghanistan, both in terms of the influx of Afghan nationals into Europe and in terms of halting the progress made with said country in the field of returns?

Beate: When it comes to the situation in Afghanistan, we are following developments closely and no answer is easy.  The current security situation in Afghanistan is volatile and there are  growing uncertainties concerning future developments, especially after the withdrawal of foreign troops.

The EU and international partners should work with a long-term vision. The EU focuses on continuing to support an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process and on promoting democracy and self-reliance. At the same time, we have been consulting with Member States in relation to the implementation of the Joint Declaration on Migration Cooperation signed on 26 April between the EU and Afghanistan and the temporary suspension of non-voluntary return notified by Afghanistan.

As underlined in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, migration is best managed as part of a comprehensive and tailor-made approach, at the core of a mutually beneficial partnership with countries of origin and transit. The EU remains committed to pursuing its implementation provided conditions allow.

Contacts with our Afghan counterparts in order to discuss the decision are ongoing but it is foreseeable that the situation will remain difficult. 

Is a European mechanism for dealing with situations like the crisis of 2015 in place or foreseen for the future, considering the reduced budget foreseen for all relevant Funds?

Beate: The EU has made huge strides in migration and border management since 2015 and is moving towards a more sustainable and European way to manage migration. To give you just a few examples:

  • A new European Border and Coast Guard is now in place, with a reinforced mandate, increased competences and a standing corps of border guards available to support Member States when they need it.
  • The Commission has mobilised unprecedented levels of funding within the EU to support Member States in need.
  • The Commission has developed an  approach to help countries of first entry to manage increased arrivals where they occur – by putting together support from EU agencies and EU funding to rapidly put in places infrastructure and processes to address people’s immediate needs and all the required procedures (from security screening to asylum requests and potentially return).
  • The Commission and EU Member States are working with partners outside the EU to provide support for refugees and address the root causes of irregular migration. The EU has also expanded pathways for regular migration, including labour migration and the mobility of entrepreneurs, students and researchers. 
  • The Commission Recommendation on an EU Migration Preparedness and Crisis Blueprint under the New Pact of Migration and Asylum, which is now being implemented, helps ensure preparedness for and response to difficult migratory situations that could affect the Union. It contributes to fast and effective common reaction, and sets out key protocols and measures in case of crisis, helping to move from a reactive mode to one based on readiness and anticipation.
  • The European Parliament and Council also recently reached a political agreement to transform the European Asylum Support Office into a European Union Agency of Asylum. The new agency will help make asylum procedures in Member States of higher quality, more uniform and faster. Its new reserve of 500 experts will also provide quicker and more effective support to national asylum systems facing a high caseload, making the overall EU migration management system more efficient and sustainable. 

All these examples show that we are better equipped to deal with any future crises – should they arise. 

We are also supporting the Parliament and the Council in making progress on the legislative proposal presented as part of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum put forward in September last year. The Pact will put in place an effective migration management system capable of addressing irregular arrivals in normal times, in times of pressure, and in times of crisis. It will put in place more efficient and fairer procedures, help reduce unsafe and irregular routes and promote sustainable and safe legal pathways to Europe. We welcome that Member States as well as the European Parliament are engaging constructively with the Commission’s proposals and encourage both to work together to find solutions and a way forward.

When could the Member States expect the executive decisions that will specify the requirements for the thematic facilities, as well as the corresponding guides for applicants?

Esteban: We are working in the finalization of the templates, guide for applicants and different descriptions and concept notes, which will be available to the Member States after the summer break. As you know, there are some important changes which will modify the way we have been working under the previous MFF such as a more restricted definition of emergency. We have in front of us a learning curve of new rules, new projects and challenges to overcome together.

Throughout 2020-2021 due to the pandemic, the Joint Europe-Turkey Declaration is at standstill and practically not implemented since relevant readmissions are not carried out. How is this delay expected to affect the operation of the Funds during the programming period 2021 -2027?

Beate: The EU-Turkey Statement remains valid. The European Commission expects Turkey to continue to live up to its commitments under the statement, preventing the departure of irregular migrants and accepting returns. Despite the more difficult context of the pandemic, Turkey should start again its readmissions under the statement. The EU is equally committed to continue its resettlement efforts. We have had a Resettlement Forum only last July to that effect.

It is clear the pandemic has a temporary knock-on effect on these elements. The health protocols for returns, relocation or resettlement need to take into account the pandemic context, but the options to ensure safe and healthy transfers are there. Vaccination will be a further help in that regard, so I would not see a long term effect.

The task force is roughly 1 year old. Do you consider it to be a successful idea? How are improved, especially in Greece, due to the task force?

Beate: That is a question you should perhaps ask others to give feedback J!  It is hard to imagine already one year has passed, but a lot has changed in that space of time. The situation today is not comparable to that back then and we welcome the many improvements thanks to the important efforts by the Greek government. Presence in the first reception centres on the Greek islands is at a historic low, new centres are being procured and constructed with EU financing and the Greek Asylum Service has been tackling the backlog in asylum cases, which is significantly decreased, with the support of the European Asylum Support Office. On Samos, Kos and Leros, we will see new multi-purpose reception and identification centres open in the course of the year.

In all this, I think the joint pilot and Task Force set-up has allowed us to have a close cooperation between all actors, Greece, Commission, EU agencies, Member States and implementing partners, making sure that targeted support can be made available fast where needed. The Task Force also gets a lot of political support which is very helpful.

What is the value added with the new fund BMVI? What are the priorities that it will cover and what are the MS and the EU, expected to have achieved by the end of the next PP 2021-27?

Esteban: The Border Management and Visa Instrument (BMVI) should not be considered as a new fund as it is the continuation of the 2014-2020 ISF Borders and Visas. Now as a standalone fund, it will aim in principle to provide the necessary support to Member States for the implementation of common standards for external border surveillance, by supporting he European integrated border management at the external borders and to implement the European visa policy by harmonization of the approaches on the issuance of visas by facilitating legitimate travel and preventing security risks. I think we have a long road until 2027, however our joint objective is the protection of the EU borders and the significant decrease of the illegal crossings to the EU territory which could jeopardize EU security.

Do you think that Greece has the capacity to face another crisis like 2015?  During the previous PP 2014-20 most of all funding was handled by NGOs and International Organizations. Do you consider that the public bodies will be equally successful in implementing relevant actions an thus absorbing funds?

Esteban: Personally I think that Greece is a prime example of an EU Member State which has gained a lot of experience on how to deal with a migration crisis. 2015 caught all the EU by surprise and mainly Greece and Italy, and all the stakeholders and donors reacted as swiftly as possible to provide the support needed. At that time, International Organisations and NGOs had the expertise and the resources to quickly respond to the crisis and they were key in tackling the crisis.

With time, this has already changed as in the meantime public bodies have gained experience and are putting in place the mechanisms and institutions required in times of crisis. Moreover, Greece has also taken the lead at political level bringing together Member States, like in the MED5 initiative, so as to speak with stronger voice in the area of migration.

Any last thoughts?

Θα ήθελα να ευχαριστήσω τις ελληνικές αρχές για την μέχρι τώρα συνεργασία. Η νέα προγραμματική περίοδος αποτελεί μία μοναδική ευκαιρία να τεθούν οι βάσεις για μία μακρόχρονη και βιώσιμη διαχείριση του μεταναστευτικού ζητήματος. And I count on you all to keep my days exciting and meaningful!!

Thank you!

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