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Ambassador Gjelstad´s Speech at the Closing Event of the Asylum and Migration Program

Below you will find the speech held by Ambassador Jørn E. Gjelstad at the closing event of the asylum and migration program - "Capacity building of national Asylum and Migration Management Systems" - funded through the EEA and Norway Grants. The closing event took place 30 October 2017.

Kalimera-sas,

Distinguished guests, friends,

It is with honor I address you today at this closing event of one of the migration programs supported by the EEA Norway Grants for the current period (2009-2014). And I can assure you all, this program has yielded positive results.

The main objective of this program has been to develop an effective national management system for asylum and migration that also can safeguard the right to seek asylum. In order to achieve this goal, the program was designed to underpin and support existing plans for establishing first reception centers based on specific requirements. The Asylum Service and the Reception and Identification Service have been the two core implementing entities of this program, both demonstrating dedication and resolve during the implementation phase. 

Back in 2013 when the migration flow gradually picked up, migrants kept using both the land border from Turkey as well as the river separating the two countries as logistical corridors. When planning for the first reception center in Greece, we therefore had to focus on arrivals in Evros, located in the northern part of Greece. Given these circumstances, Fylakio came to be a natural choice.

Little did we then know what was to come – and all the changes it entailed.  I will come back to that in a short while. 

With the dedicated efforts of the Reception and Identification Service, more than 13 000 migrants and asylum seekers have since 2013 been supported at Fylakio, the first screening center in Greece. It is important to recognize that by developing Fylakio, we made a blueprint of a model for reception and identification centers that could be tested and evaluated. This model was later to be translated into hot-spots on five of the most migration- affected islands in the Aegean archipelago, including Moria on Lesbos.

Concurrently, the EEA Grants also became a funding lifeline for a professionalized asylum management system operated by the Asylum Service. I am proud to inform you that throughout the program-period more than 27 000 decisions have been made. A contributing factor to this excellent result has been the ability of the Service to enter into contracts with interpreters and extra personell made possible by the funds from the EEA Norway Grants. During the last 5 years, we have seen a civil service develop into a flexible, result orientated and efficient organization doing high-quality processing of asylum cases. An impressive achievement if we take into account all the challenges this institution had to meet along the way.  

Few if any of the positive results accomplished by the EEA Norway Grants would have been possible without a professional management of the program. I will commend the European Development Programs Division (EDPD) within the Ministry of Interior for excellent work. Another key player in this regard is the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration in Norway (UDI). The Directorate not only brought dedicated expertise to the program, but also ensured an important bilateral dimension.

In short, we are very satisfied with many of the tangible results this program has produced, and the close and constructive cooperation the program has fostered between the Greek and Norwegian stakeholders.

It was not a coincidence that the first migration program of the EEA Grants was implemented in Greece during the funding period of 2009-2014. In 2010, the Greek authorities had just adopted a national plan for the migration management, and by doing so elevating this issue to a matter of political priority. Seeing the migration challenge as an all- European issue and responsibility, and not reducing it to a national concern only, Norway felt committed to support Greece in a sustainable way. We look at the migration challenge in the southern part of Europe as a cross-cutting European responsibility that commit us all.

We are all well aware of how difficult this issue is. Throughout the last decades, Norway has tried to develop a national system for migration management that is both comprehensive and flexible. This system is based on cooperation with local governments, non-governmental organizations and private stakeholders. To implement such a model has challenges, due to the fact that a well-functioning asylum system constantly has to adapt itself to changing circumstances. Not surprisingly, this area needs continuous focus and support in order to sustain its relevance. 

And that is why we believe that the long term funding through the EEA Norway Grants has been an expedient and useful tool for our Greek colleagues in their implementation of the Greek national plan on migration management.

In order to support the national plan in a holistic way, including the whole chain from arrivals to decisions on asylum claims, it has been necessary to make certain priorities.  In this regard, we have chosen to focus on specific groups of migrants and asylum seekers. In close cooperation with Greek authorities, international organizations and non-governmental organization (NGOs), we inter alia decided to tailor-make our support to the most vulnerable segments of the migration population; namely the unaccompanied minors, single parent families, elderly, vulnerable women and victims of trafficking and torture.     

This holistic focus was also the reason why the EEA Grants funded another migration program in Greece based on cooperation with non-governmental entities and organizations. In addition to support migrants and asylum seekers directly, this program has also been of additional value to Greek authorities and the way they enhanced their professionalism in dealing with the migration issue. 

However, the program we are celebrating today went through a sequence of several stages before the tsunami of arrivals hit the Greek shores in 2015. The planning was done, the technical preparations were made, the implementation was on a fairly good track. And suddenly a new crisis was rushed upon us and required immediate action. The migration pressure was of a scale Europe had not seen before in modern history. Nobody could see this situation coming.

The newly established civil services were put to a test almost beyond comprehension. In many ways, these institutions were shouldering the task of handling an all-encompassing European crisis. Greece became the testing ground for ideas; new approaches, new legislation, new organizational structures, and a new “safe third country” concept. All this while several thousand migrants and refugees arrived – every day!

Governmental structures across the whole of Europe had to step in with renewed resolve to meet this challenge. At that time, we could hear many voices calling for the importance of developing a comprehensive and strategic European framework for managing the crisis. There was an urge for collective efforts to be stepped up, and operational cross-border initiatives to be designed.

But it takes time to change directions and capacities of bureaucratic machineries. Not to say developing new governmental policies. Therefore, we could easily see the importance of the NGOs during the first stage of the crisis, as a first responder to the precarious situation that had developed on the islands in the Aegean. NGOs from Greece and other countries were on the spot to support the migrants and asylum seekers.

Norway experienced the same involvement from NGOs in the autumn of 2015, when the sheer numbers of asylum seekers overburdened our own migration system.   

So, please let me at this point dwell a bit on volunteerism, meaning the responsible and considerate commitment from the civil society to solve societal

problems. It characterizes the way we are doing things, both in Norway and Greece.

It is a fact that democracies become more robust and well developed with a strong contribution from the civil society. A vibrant democracy is dependent on impulses from its citizens, and the NGOs serve as an important communication channel between the public and the private areas. One way to foster responsible and committed NGOs as constructive partners is to involve them in important processes. 

We believe acting together with civil society as our strategic partner will strengthen any government’s capacity to achieve long-term goals. We can simply not afford to refrain from teaming up in this way.

That was the past, but what about the future?

We currently observe a small breathing pause for us to recalibrate from the previous migration pressure. Even if the numbers have drastically dropped since the peak of the crisis, much seems to suggest that the migration pressure against Europe will continue. Even with a political solution of the Syrian crisis and a stabilization of the Middle East, we should not tend to believe that challenges from migration would finally be over. I believe that the Syrian crises has profoundly changed the mindset and calculations of people not only fleeing from war and terror, but living under extreme difficult conditions as well. For the future, we have to prepare ourselves for migrants deciding to come out of rational calculations connected to a variety of reasons: local conflicts, the negative impact from climate change, increasing economic deprivation, systemic discrimination, harassment and persecution as well as other forms of marginalization. Lack of work and inequality is a push factor, and Europe is for many the Promised Land. We have to acknowledge that. Therefore, I think it is fair to say that migration should be considered as an integrated and permanent part of the present and future reality of Europe, and the decision-making processes in each single capital.

Speaking on the EEA Norway Grants, we have the new funding period in front of us leading up to 2021 with a total allocation of €116 million. And I am happy to announce that the Memorandum of Understanding between Greece and the Donors will be signed tomorrow. I am also happy to say that migration and asylum management will continue as a prioritized area also for the new program. The current program has allocated approximately 1/3 of the total funding to migration and asylum management. And I have reasons to believe that this will be the case also for the new program.

For those of you that are not very familiar with the EEA Norway Grants, let me briefly mention that they represent the contribution of Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein to reducing economic and social disparities and to strengthening bilateral relations with the EU countries in Central and Southern Europe. Through the European Economic Area Agreement, these three countries are partners in the internal market together with the EU member states. Ever since the establishment of the EEA in 1994, the Donor states have provided funding to reduce social and economic disparities and to promote important values and norms.

Please let me also address a few points on Norway’s broader engagement in Greece for the coming years. In the context of the new program, we will also see a strong program-focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, in particular with a view to the young educated people in this country. Opportunities for the new young generation have to be created. Efforts will also be made to strengthen Greek research on innovative technology. There will be a strong focus on green energy and resource management programs, not to say the Greek civil society organizations, and the support to the poorest segment of the Greek society. All these areas stand out as important benchmarks for us.

In conclusion, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Asylum Service, and to Reception and Identification Service for all their dedication, efforts and achievements – in an extremely challenging environment.

Congratulation for a job well done! 

Lastly, our heartfelt thanks go to Director Marketakis and his staff at the EDPD for managing the Fund in such a professional manner, which made it possible to achieve these excellent results.

Norway is most grateful! Thank you for the attention.