The interim chief of the EU’s beleaguered asylum agency says it will take just six months to turn things around.
Jamil Addou, a French asylum lawyer, took over the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) from its previous executive director, José Carreira. Carreira stepped down in June after POLITICO reported an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog into claims of procurement misconduct, improper personnel management and possible breaches of data protection.
The agency received a further blow last week when the EU’s top auditors concluded that more than a tenth of the payments made by EASO last year, amounting to €7.7 million, do not comply with the bloc’s financial rules.
The agency’s troubles come at a particularly inopportune moment for the European Union, as it continues a protracted struggle to find a common position on migration. The issue is once again on the agenda of an EU summit, in Brussels on Thursday.
For European Commission officials and some EU member countries, the best way to tackle migration is to agree common rules and standards that can be applied to asylum seekers across the bloc. But even if the EU could agree such an approach, it would be hard to implement, with one of main agencies responsible in disarray.
“I’m very committed to EASO, I was one of the first generation staff in the agency and I have worked on asylum all my life” — Jamil Addou
Addou says his Malta-based agency will be much improved in half a year from now, having tackled issues including financial management and chronic staff shortages.
“No one in their right mind would expect that absolutely everything will be sorted and perfect in six months, but where we will be in six months from now is that we’ll be fully equipped … for preventing those issues to be happening again,” Addou told POLITICO in an interview in the agency’s Brussels office.
EASO’s role has been growing since the 2015 migration crisis and will grow further if the EU establishes so-called controlled centers for migrants in member countries, as leaders agreed to do at their last regular gathering in June. According to draft conclusions for Thursday’s summit, they will ask their ministers and the European Parliament to consider “as a matter of priority” a proposed new mandate for the agency that would make it easier and quicker for EASO to support national asylum systems.
As part of the Commission’s plans, EASO should be transformed into a new EU Agency for Asylum (EUAA).
To address the agency’s problems, Addou has put together an action plan, with 53 different tasks to be completed by the end of the first quarter of next year. The main objective “is first to restore the trust of the staff in the agency, trust of the stakeholders in our credibility to deliver on the current objectives but also on the upcoming expectations,” he said.
Addou said that, despite its current problems, EASO had been able to expand operations in Greece and Italy and now has a fully fledged operation in Cyprus. He also said that many points raised by the EU Court of Auditors have already been addressed.
For now, the agency’s main tasks include providing training, advice and support to national authorities dealing with asylum seekers.
Addou said the planned “controlled centers” would be different from the current “hotspots” set up to house asylum seekers in Italy and Greece. They would act as a one-stop-shop dealing with every step of the asylum process — from arrival until acceptance, or rejection and return.
He sought to address concerns, however, among some EU members that the agency would take responsibility for asylum decisions away from national governments. “No one should be led to believe that the EU will take over asylum in member states,” he said.
Next spring, when Addou hopes to have EASO back on an even keel, the agency will appoint a permanent new executive director. Vincent Cochetel, the U.N. refugee agency’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, told POLITICO that he has applied for the post.
Addou himself isn’t ruling out throwing his hat into the ring.
“I have a lot on my plate, I’m very ambitious with the interim period,” he said, before adding: “I’m very committed to EASO, I was one of the first generation staff in the agency and I have worked on asylum all my life.”