As leaders of European Union member states prepare to meet to discuss the Mediterranean refugee crisis, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights sets the bar for an adequate response.
The Mediterranean Sea has for centuries been the cradle of modern European civilisation. It has today become a huge graveyard, as thousands of migrants continue to drown under Europe’s distracted look. When in October 2013 a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa took the lives of 300 migrants, European leaders were unanimous in declaring ‘no more deaths’. Yet, 18 months and some 5,000 deaths later, we see these tragedies again and again.
Since last weekend more than 1,000 people have drowned off the coast of Libya and another 600 died during journeys to Europe earlier this year. In the first four months of 2015 we have already mourned half the number of people who died in 2014. As meteorological conditions improve, the season of death has just begun.
These tragedies were foreseeable and, as the Italians proved, preventable.Operation Mare Nostrum, put in place by the Italian government in October 2013, rescued more than 150,000 migrants in 14 months, seized five mother ships and brought to justice more than 300 alleged smugglers. Italy not only bore alone the cost of these operations, estimated at more than €100m, but also came under criticism from some fellow European Union member states, including Germany and the United Kingdom, which took the position that saving the lives of those in danger at sea was creating a magnet for irregular migration.
Unfortunately, to date, the EU’s response to this unprecedented loss of life has failed to rise to the challenge. While the Frontex-coordinated Joint Operation Triton has helped save several thousand migrants since its inception last November, its main role as a border-control mission does not sufficiently address the need to strengthen search-and-rescue capabilities in the Mediterranean.
It is high time for Europe to change its course and assume responsibility for preventing similar tragedies. Last Monday, EU foreign ministers adopted a ten-point action plan to improve Europe’s response to migratory flows. It is a first step in the right direction. But there is an urgent need to take concrete steps to enact adequate laws, devise effective policies and change political rhetoric concerning asylum-seekers and migrants.
Overhaul of European migration laws
One of the most urgent measures is reform of legislation governing asylum and migration. Tougher border controls only increase migrants’ vulnerability—and make smugglers richer. European states must develop transparent and efficient legal migration avenues.
In this context, legislation on humanitarian visas, as well as family reunification, should be eased. Many of the migrants taking their chances on perilous sea and land routes have family members regularly residing in Europe. It is cruel to restrict their right to family unity.
There is also a need to overhaul the Dublin Regulation, which allows the majority of EU member states to leave the challenges of dealing with the influx of asylum-seekers to frontline countries like Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain. The EU has still to make the much-needed adjustments to the Common European Asylum System to provide for effective solidarity with these countries, whose asylum and reception systems are overwhelmed and, in certain cases, even dysfunctional. Regrettably, most European countries seem unwilling to share responsibilities in terms of the reception and protection of refugees—as shown by the Syrian refugee crisis, for which only Germany and Sweden in the EU have tried to live up to their obligations.
In addition, European states should rid from their laws provisions criminalising migrants’ irregular entry and presence. Laws allowing for the administrative detention of migrants should be repealed and replaced by laws which ensure a humane approach to the needs of migrants. In particular, despite international standards which clearly prohibit the detention of migrant children only because of their immigration status or that of their parents, most European countries still maintain internal legislation providing for the detention of these children and continue to detain them, sometimes in prison-like centres.
Necessary migration-policy changes
Legislation alone, however, will not change the fate of migrants. Better migration policies are needed. First of all, Europe should establish a ‘European Mare Nostrum’, ensuring extensive search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
Secondly, there needs to be an effective system to share protection and reception responsibilities. EU countries have to team up not only to save lives but also to alleviate the pressure on frontline countries and ensure respect of human-rights obligations by member states. The European Commission’s proposal to establish a voluntary pilot project on refugees’ resettlement is encouraging and should be fully embraced by all member states. The same positive response should be given to recent proposals from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, for life-saving actions in the Mediterranean, which include sensible and attainable measures to prevent tragedies and help resettle people in need of protection.
Tougher border controls only increase migrants’ vulnerability—and make smugglers richer.
Another proposal under discussion by European leaders is the long-debated idea of establishing asylum outposts in Africa and the Middle East. If such a measure can save lives, so much the better. But it must be part of a broader, human-rights based asylum-and-immigration strategy and should be subject to effective monitoring to safeguard the human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers. The offshore processing of asylum claims, often in areas whose human-rights records are not clean, must be done with the utmost care and can in no case mean diminishing responsibility for strict respect of the human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers.
Development policies in the countries of origin are also needed to eradicate the main causes of migration: war, poverty and environmental disasters. This requires comprehensive and long-term action plans, in which host and origin countries work together to improve the protection of human rights of the people who feel themselves obliged to migrate for a better life.
In addition, governments should devote more attention and resources to the integration of refugees, including by strengthening the capacities of the local authorities which are essential actors in this process.
Eradicating anti-immigrant rhetoric
A third, key element in the migration equation is political discourse. Legislative and policy changes will hardly be possible if political leaders continue pandering to people’s fears and insecurities. Some mainstream politicians are surfing on the racist and xenophobic waves sweeping over Europe, often in connection with national and regional elections. This is the wrong approach. Political leaders and opinion-makers have to confront a fearful public opinion from a principled standpoint, stressing the values and principles that have defined a certain idea of Europe built on tolerance, acceptance and solidarity. They have to refocus the debate on the human-rights dimension of migration.
The role played by the media in this regard is absolutely crucial. Journalists and editors, who make an important contribution to shaping the public debate, should abstain from negative stereotyping of migrants and should inform the public about their situation in a fair way. Bringing examples of migrants’ successful integration in European societies into the public debate can help people understand that migrants are a resource and not a danger.
Striking the right balance between security and rights
Managing migration flows is certainly not an easy task—in particular now that wars and instability at Europe’s doorstep increase the pressure on people to leave and on states to find solutions. States have of course the right and duty to keep control of their borders and to know who is inside them. But this comes with the obligation to uphold international human-rights standards to ensure access to asylum, adequate protection and humane reception.
So far the EU has failed to strike a proper balance between these duties. Too much emphasis has been put on security concerns, to the detriment of human rights.
As the heads of state and government meet tomorrow to shape Europe’s future response to migration, my hope is that they will move from words to action. Europe has to move quickly from ineffective emergency plans to long-term policies which uphold its obligations towards immigrants and asylum-seekers—and save human lives.
European leaders do not need to reinvent the wheel but just to implement what the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the European Parliament, the International Organisation for Migration and many non-governmental organisations have been recommending for years—a more human-rights based migration-and-asylum policy. This change is possible, and it has to happen now.
In today’s crisis talks on the boat tragedies, the EU must resolve to rescue those in peril on the sea
Today Europe faces a primal test. As leaders meet in Brussels to discuss the bodies floating in the Mediterranean, they should look across the table and ask themselves what being European means. The reason so many hurl themselves recklessly at our rocky southern shores is because we are a haven of civilisation, where peace and law prevail, human rights are mostly observed, mercy is valued and murder punished.
Europe may lose that reputation if it becomes primarily a fortress, ignoring the age-old humanitarian lore of the sea that long predates human rights laws. But ahead of today’s meeting, the head of Frontex, the EU border agency, said restoring search and rescue was not in his remit, or EU policy. The commitment is to double funding in 2015 and 2016, and “reinforce the assets” of the existing Operation Triton and Operation Poseidon border surveillance, which only patrol within 30 miles of Italy’s coast.
Like all the big questions, there is no satisfactory answer to what could become a mass movement of people out of the war-torn, employment-deserts of Africa towards the Mediterranean, with dreams of a new life in Europe. But the first answer must be to keep hold of first principles. People cannot be deliberately drowned because all of Europe’s decent political parties lack the moral spine to face down their xenophobic fringes. Standing together in absolute refusal to let people die has to be the starting point and the end point today.
First solution: stop the panic. So far numbers are not massive – 150,000 made it to Italy last year (3,500 dead on the way) – numbers easily absorbed within the EU’s 28 nations. Second rule: don’t lie about what can be done. David Cameron learned to his cost about over-promising on immigration. The idea, in the draft summit statement, that just 5,000 selected refugees can be screened and dispersed while the rest are sent back is fantasy. Without papers, it’s often unclear where people come from, countries won’t take them and the cost of locking them up and then putting them on planes with four security guards each is prohibitive.
By all means try everything being proposed. Former SBS man Paddy Ashdown wants to send in the gunboats to destroy Libyan traffickers’ boats. But that act of war needs UN approval, and will he blow up every fishing smack along the African coast? Patrolling did deter Somali pirates, but there is no law that prevents large numbers of law-abiding people being in boats at sea – that’s not piracy.
If there are answers, they are difficult, long-term and politically unsatisfying – helping Libya, Syria, Somalia and others towards peace, helping Africa towards prosperity, making deals to stop migration at its source – if there’s a government to deal with. Migration ebbs and flows with wars and Europe could do more, were it less politically weak and inwardly obsessed by recession. This may be another test the EU fails – but at least let it not fail in basic humanity.
Here at home, mid-election, the crisis shines a light on our politicians. Once it was plain the public were horrified by the deaths, Cameron and Nick Clegg backed off their original approval for stopping search and rescue. But Theresa May and Philip Hammond, both leadership contenders, say the risk of attracting more migrants outweighs everything else: let them drown as a lesson to Africa.
After Labour’s less than noble human rights record and its awful “Controls on immigration” mug, what a relief to hear shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper’s straightforward gut response calling for immediate restoration of Mare Nostrum: “The EU should do the basic, humanitarian thing and rescue those in peril on the sea.”
Hardly Christian, Nigel Farage said he’d pluck a few Christians from the sea, a mirror image of those Muslims who are reported to have thrown Christians overboard. The Sun gleefully let Katie Hopkins call for gunships against “the plague of feral humans”. As for the Eurosceptics, outside the EU how would we control our borders, once the rest of Europe stops holding people back at Calais and elsewhere?
So this is a test of essential values for all. Today, the EU looks into its heart and its purpose. If the answer to “those in peril on the sea” is to throw them back, let no Christian sing that heart-tug of a sea dirge ever again.