The executive director of the new Malta-based European Asylum Support Office has vowed to promote and coordinate activities between EU member states to relocate those who have international protection.

Dutchman Robert Visser told The Sunday Times he will have a separate coordination function at the EASO for the resettlement of refugees from member states facing particular pressures.

However, Dr Visser cautioned the EASO will play no role in developing binding rather than voluntary measures to deliver the principles of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility in migration policy across the EU.

The agency will be inaugurated today by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström at the Upper Barrakka Gardens,Valletta.

The EASO is a regulatory agency set up to improve the implementation of the Common European Asylum System, develop practical cooperation among member states on asylum, and support member states experiencing particular pressure on their asylum systems. Malta lobbied hard to make it the first EU agency based on its shores.

Dr Visser explained that if member states like Malta believed they are facing specific and disproportionate pressures on their asylum systems, characterised by a sudden arrival of a large number of asylum seekers or the state’s geographical or demographical situation, they can appeal to the EASO for support.

Once a member state has submitted a satisfactory request for assistance, the EASO and the requesting member state may conclude an operating plan that sets out in detail the conditions for the deployment of the Asylum Support Teams – the teams of experts who will be on the ground to assist.

“In practical terms, these support actions are carried out by experts on asylum, on reception facilities, on training or on screening – the EASO does not have any mandate in relation to decision-making of individual asylum claims,” Dr Visser explained.

The EASO has set up an Asylum Intervention Pool made up of approximately 350 experts from nearly all member states whoare available in emergencysituations.

Dr Visser said that supporting Greece in modernising its asylum and reception system is one of the main immediate priorities for the new agency, which is based at the Malta Maritime Trade Centre in Valletta.

The EASO will be deploying EU Asylum Support Teams in Greece over the next two years to assist the Greek authorities.

Greece had become the gateway of choice for irregular migrants to the EU following Italy’s 2009 ‘push back’ agreement with Libya, which meant migrants who had departed Libya for Europe were forcibly returned to Libya by Italy.

However, this year’s political upheaval in North Africa has reopened that region as a crossing area, making the central Mediterranean (Italy and Malta) the most popular route for irregular migrants attempting to reach the EU according to Frontex, the EU border agency.

Aside from assisting member states facing pressure on their asylum systems, the EASO will work towards harmonising asylum standards and practices in the EU in its efforts to support the implementation of the Common EuropeanAsylum System.

“There remain disparities between the member states in the granting of international protection and the forms that such protection takes,” Dr Visser admitted.

“The EASO is now in place to support member states in getting best practices and practical cooperation organised,” he added.

To that end, the EASO will start managing a common European asylum training programme to train asylum case workers across the EU, as well as developing a common approach to information on asylum-seekers’ countries of origin.

Dr Visser said he will he set up a specific division in the EASO dedicated to country of origin information and the agency will manage a web-based portal on all such relevant information, including reports from international and non-governmental organisations. The EASO will make common reports on countries of origin, together with member states, the European Commission and UNHCR.

He also pledged that civil society organisations and relevant competent bodies operating in the field of asylum will be actively involved in the work of the agency, and a Consultative Forum will be set up for this purpose.

However, Dr Visser admitted that the EASO itself would have no power to intervene to enforce minimum standards or prevent the forced return of asylum-seekers by individual member states to countries deemed unsafe by the EASO.

“If a member state fails to fulfil its legal obligations under the EU asylum acquis, the European Commission, as the guardian of the treaties, will step in and take the necessary measures,” he said.

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