Conversations (1)

Tackling the root causes of forced migration has to be a key plank in EU policies. That means not only seeking resolutions to numerous conflicts creating refugee flows (Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, to name just a few) but also addressing the whole range of human rights abuses that make life in home countries—and countries of first asylum or migration—untenable. And to be clear, I am referring here not only to civil and political rights abuses that come to mind when we talk about asylum seekers and refugees. I am also including social, economic, and cultural rights violations. Many of those risking their lives in the central Mediterranean will not qualify for international protection, though many could arguably qualify for humanitarian leave to stay, either due to hardships back home or abuse experienced along their migration journey. Others started out their journeys as trafficking victims, while still others became victims of trafficking along the way. (The neat divisions traced in international and European law between migrants, asylum seekers and refugees don’t hold up very well in the light of day. A Syrian refugee also wants a decent job and education for her children; the young man from Guinea hoping for greater economic opportunities also craves more freedoms and a life lived in safety.)

Conflict resolution, improving the lives of migrants and refugees in neighboring countries, a human-rights based foreign policy – all vital, all regularly included in EU programs and press releases. As has been noted, however, the reality is quite different. The EU aid and foreign policy has pivoted decisively towards migration control objectives rather than improving respect for human rights. The Partnership Framework for relations with third countries represents a clear articulation of the EU’s goal, significantly re-energized over the past 18 months, to intensify migration cooperation with countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia with the objectives of preventing irregular migratory flows to Europe and facilitating the removal of rejected asylum seekers and irregular migrants from EU territory.

In any event, improving conditions and freedoms in origin and transit countries are very long-term goals. In the meantime, EU countries need to show genuine leadership in the global displacement crisis and get serious about measures to minimize the need for dangerous migration journeys. That means refugee resettlement commensurate with EU capacity and global needs; support for the UN refugee agency UNHCR to expand its capacity to process resettlement; innovative programs for private sponsorship, employment and education visas for refugees; expanding, rather than limiting, family reunification options; increased use of humanitarian visas; and expanded legal migration opportunities for workers at all skill levels. It also means ensuring robust search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

No amount of safe and legal channels will reduce irregular migration to zero. People will continue to come, with or without life jackets but definitely with rights. Those rights cannot be sacrificed in the name of deterrence. Everyone should be treated decently, receive necessary care, and have access to information and legal advice about every procedure affecting their rights and liberties, whether they are applying for asylum, may have humanitarian or other grounds to remain in an EU country, or have been detained pending deportation.

As a human rights activist, I base my work on the belief that positive change is possible. That has become increasingly difficult as we see EU governments close Europe’s doors to refugees and make life harder for those already here. But I still have to believe that EU countries can adopt responsible and compassionate policies.
Well, when it comes to the question of resolving the Syrian war, I am not very hopeful - carefully spoken. While during the Obama administration any solution to the Syrian crisis suffered from the lack of political will in Washington (and Europe) to seriously engage, under Trump we are now even lacking the intellectual capacity.

Maria is totally right in laying out the figures that relativize the size of the European refugee crisis. But I’m not sure the numbers are of great help on the policy advocacy side. European governments have used the same numbers to argue for the need to separate those in need for international protection from those not entitled to any form of protection, the so-called “economic migrants.” They’ve argued assistance to refugees should prioritize helping them to stay near their countries of origin instead of them coming to Europe. All reasonable arguments, but as Maria has also shown on the example of the EU’s distortion of its developmental aid policy, this narrative is contradicted by the EU’s real political performance, and thus merely serves as a cover up.

The real problem is the EU’s lack of internal political will and capacity to seriously, strategically deal with a structural political problem. That’s why since March 2016, we have seen efforts by the EU to arrange a deal with the non-existing Libyan government, but no engagement in the Libyan state-failure nor any progress towards a coordinated European immigration policy that would ease the pressure of economic migration.

Regarding supporting refugees near their home countries – well, it may be worth comparing with the last refugee crisis Europe hit during the 1990s Balkan wars. I well remember how when the Bosnian war broke out, the only policy measure the German Kohl government’s took was – to introduce visas for Bosnian citizens in order to prevent them from coming to Germany. Yet back then, Bosnians could still reach the neighboring countries. Since the end of the recent European refugee crisis, Syrians in Syria basically find themselves locked up in their war-torn country, as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have de facto closed their borders with the neighboring country. This is a unique, deeply sad case in history. And it will ultimately backfire – for the EU, Europe and the West as a whole.