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					        Development of Refugee Community Organisations in Europe


               Conference on the development of RCOs in Ireland
                                     29 October 2004
                                            Dublin


                                       Henry Mårtenson
                          European Council for Refugees and Exiles




I. Introduction


I would like to start by thanking the Irish Refugee Council for the invitation to be with you
today, and for giving us the opportunity to share with you our views on the development of
refugee community organisations (RCOs) in Europe. I am speaking on behalf of the European
Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), an umbrella organisation for co-operation between
76 refugee-assisting non-governmental organisations in 30 European countries. Over the next
30 minutes, I will present a summary of ECRE‟s work on this issue, set in the context of our
work on reception and integration of refugees, and attempt to give some ideas on how RCOs
can play a greater part in the EU asylum debate.


But first, let me pick up on a point made at last year‟s Conference on Community
Development, Refugees and Asylum Seekers, organised by the Irish Refugee Council here in
Dublin. The point was made that RCOs should move away from just dealing with reception
issues and initial advice/support to newly arrived refugees, and towards integration and
settlement issues. I agree completely with this point! If we are to challenge the many negative
attitudes or misinformation surrounding refugees and why they seek asylum in Europe, I think
that a good way of doing this is to enable RCOs to show the general public what skills,
resources and capacities exist within refugee communities and how self-help organisations
can really make a difference in allowing refugees to take charge of their own lives again,
which in a sentence is what integration is about. Of course, assisting new-comers with a
whole range of pressing immediate concerns is important, and RCOs as the first-point of
contact, often address these needs well despite operating under difficult circumstances.
However, it is not to say that this should be RCOs primary role or responsibility, as I think
statutory agencies often fulfil this role better. Perhaps the answer to the question on how to
balance meeting the immediate needs and interests of your own specific community against
serving the good for all refugees, lie in finding your niche in providing reception services that
are unique for your community and developing good referral systems to other agencies
working in the area.


II. RCO development in a European context


Turning to the development of RCOs in the European context, I would like to start by saying
that refugee participation in the development and implementation of a common European
asylum system is still sorely lacking. There is a range of reasons why this is the case. First,
there are only a few EU Member States where refugee organisations are involved at the
national level in advocacy activities or public education on issues of reception, integration and
return. In most EU Member States there is a lack of capacity, or even recognition as an actor
in the field, to engage in this kind of work. This is important because contrary to the myth that
EU policies are made in Brussels, decisions on how to take forward the European cooperation
in this policy field are mainly made in the national capitals. Moreover, almost none of the
RCOs are actively involved in work at a European level with regards to monitoring
developments and having an input in European policy making. Second, many RCOs operate
with minimal financial and human resources and therefore have found it difficult to build
partnerships successfully with similar organisations in other European countries, which is
vital if you are to have an impact at the European level. There are examples of budding pan-
European network among some RCOs, but often they are quite informal or focus on cultural
exchanges and lack the necessary infrastructure to be effective in terms of advocacy work.
Third, there is inconsistency among European refugee-assisting NGOs with regard to the
extent which they encourage refugee participation in their work and can be said to reflect the
views of refugees. Many NGOs are concerned about developing strong RCOs since that might
increase competition for already limited funding, or that RCOs in pursuing the interest of their
particular members would contradict or end up in conflict with NGOs serving the greater
good for all refugees. There is also sadly some hypocrisy among NGOs where they
sometimes for funding reasons partner up with RCOs simply to show a grass-root link but
where the RCOs are not equal partners, or bring along RCO representatives to meetings with
potential funders as “tokens” of a connection with refugees. For ECRE as a network of
refugee-assisting NGOs the lack of RCO involvement is highlighted by the fact that of 76
member agencies, not a single one is a refugee community organisation.
Faced with this situation, ECRE started in 2002 a project called “Strengthening the
Participation of Refugees in the European Policies and Programmes” - in short the SHARE
project. Through this project, ECRE aimed to empower RCOs to be more aware of how
European decisions influence their work at the local and national level, and give them the
tools to make better use of the opportunities the EU offers for involvement both in a practical
and political way. This would be done by ECRE sharing its experience of bringing together
refugee-assisting NGOs across Europe and developing expertise on European asylum matters
with RCOs, while at the same time improve ECRE‟s perspective and understanding of
refugee issues and base itself more directly in the refugee experience. It was our intention that
through the project better refugee participation in the ECRE network would be achieved
giving greater credibility to the promotional / media / advocacy work that the ECRE member
agencies carry out.


The project was implemented in five EU Member States (Austria, Belgium, Greece, Spain
and the UK) and the activities, which included information sessions to build capacity and
knowledge, consultation meetings to gauge RCO opinions on a range of asylum issues, and a
pan-European conference to bring it all together, were broadly organised around the three
issues of lobbying and advocacy on reception conditions and asylum procedures, EU funding
opportunities, and networking across Europe. The project also gave the participants a chance
to meet with Members of the European Parliament, representatives of the European
Commission, UNHCR staff, and Government officials to voice their concerns over the
development of a common European asylum policy.


Following the work a whole range of recommendations directed to the governments of the
Member States and the EU institutions, such as the importance to safeguard access to asylum
procedures in the EU, properly train staff involved in the processing of asylum applications,
and to simplify requirements for accessing funding and to reduce / eliminate the co-financing
element required for RCOs was put forward. The project also resulted in a call on ECRE and
its member agencies to act to facilitate the inclusion of RCOs in its work. For example, it was
suggested that ECRE should establish regular meetings and communications channels with
RCOs, and support the creation of an independent network of refugee organisations in
Europe, reflecting the expertise and priorities of community groups that is different from the
knowledge and work of national NGOs. Practically, this could mean RCOs receiving ECRE
mailings and Documentation Service and are invited to policy development meeting and
Biannual General Meetings. Through sharing information with RCOs via electronic
newsletters this would also be an opportunity to highlight issues of direct concern to RCOs.
For instance, RCOs could monitor failings at the local and national level of implementing EU
directives and bring findings to the attention of ECRE members.


III. What role for RCOs in the EU asylum debate?


So, what ideas did the SHARE project put forward on how to improve the role of RCOs in the
EU asylum debate?


Advocacy
A first step towards strengthening refugee organisations‟ role in the EU asylum debate is to
increase their awareness of EU developments and improving RCO‟s knowledge of EU asylum
policies and programmes. In the SHARE project this was achieved through the delivery of EU
information sessions on topics such as the EC Reception Directive and how to advocate at the
EU level. These sessions met with a positive response, largely due to the process of
consultation that took place prior to setting the agenda, where RCOs told us what gaps in their
knowledge needed addressing or simply what issues were most important for them. These
information sessions also provided the RCOs with an opportunity to get involved and be
noticed in the European debate, engaging with speakers and staff from EU institutions and
through better co-operation with the NGO sector. This accelerated the necessary information
exchange between administrators, advocates and refugees.


In order to facilitate RCO input on EU asylum issues it was suggested that an index of
categories that RCOs work on, both in terms of information on a country / region of origin,
and in terms of issues, is created. This could be circulated to EU institutions (Commission,
EP, COREPER) so that they would be aware of which RCOs have specific knowledge /
information on what topics, and could invite RCOs to comment on proposals, etc.


Finally, it was agreed that the use of case studies and refugee testimonies would be a very
useful and effective tool to complement traditional advocacy by NGOs, which often refers to
human rights conventions. Case studies clearly explain how policies / systems impact on the
individual and have the power to evoke a reaction in the reader that dryer legal or statistical
information rarely manages. RCOs with their strong grass-roots connection are ideally placed
to provide these case studies.
Funding
The financial situation still causes a considerable gap between RCOs and the better
established, better equipped, and better informed NGOs, and it remains to be seen what RCOs
themselves will see as useful measures to alter this imbalance. Attempts to foster partnership
building between RCOs and NGOs, and in that way give RCOs access to European funding,
could prove very useful in this regard. For example, this could mean a larger NGO leading on
a project providing most of the administrative support and financial reporting experience,
with activities in the project being „outsourced‟ to RCOs where their expertise comes to the
fore.


With refugee empowerment now a priority for UNHCR and many NGOs alike, it was stated
that capacity-building for RCOs should not just attempt to turn RCOs into „perfect applicants‟
for funding, but that more effort is needed to change funding bodies perception and targeting
of RCOs. For example, alterations of application forms and administrative procedures could
allow more RCOs to successfully apply for funds. In terms of the ERF, it was suggested that
one way of making it more accessible for RCOs would be to advocate for creating incentives
for national authorities to fund RCO-led initiatives with more EU grant available. ECRE is
very pleased to see that in the new ERF II programme, that concern has been addressed with
the possibility of especially innovative projects, or projects directly involving the target group
(i.e. refugees) eligible for 60% grant. This is a start but more needs to be done, as finding 40%
matchfunding is difficult enough. Examples of good practice from some EU Member States,
such as Italy and Greece, where the government goes in and matchfund ERF projects is worth
exploring further.


Networking
The input provided by the refugee groups to the NGOs is also proving very valuable and is
assisting these organisations to ground themselves more firmly in the refugee experience, for
example through the use of case studies and refugee testimonies. The voluntary sector needs
to do more to change the way it engages with self-help groups. For ECRE this would mean
encouraging more member organisations to work directly with RCOs by showing examples of
good practice such as refugee advisory bodies, client consultation groups, and positive action.
It would also mean creating more space for RCOs within the network to comment on ECRE
position and advocacy notes. In this regard it would be useful if a refugee reference group to
ECRE was created from which RCO / refugee representatives were invited to policy meetings
on specific issues.


Finally, it was recommended that RCOs must become better at highlighting their own
concerns at the EU level and flag this up for decision-makers and not just rely on NGO‟s
positions. A good starting point for creating a European network of RCOs would be to build
on the database of RCOs that exist within the www.refugeenet.org website and initiate
discussions on what purpose and functions such a network could have, apart from sharing
information and good practice. In the end, ECRE and its NGO member organisations can
assist RCOs with creating their own European-level network, continue to collaborate with
RCOs, but that ultimately it is for RCOs to take the initiative and realise this project. As a
final point I would like to mention that as a direct result of the SHARE project, 5 weeks ago,
ECRE received its first application for membership from an UK-based RCO, the Ethiopian
Community Centre in the UK. This, I hope, is the first step on the road of ECRE becoming
less of the „European Council on Refugees and Exiles‟, and more a „European Council of
Refugees and Exiles‟.


Thank you for your attention!

				
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