On 13 May the European Commission (EC) released its anticipated European Agenda on Migration that was meant to solve the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and address the meagre integration policies implemented by EU member states, which have resulted in an increase of racism and social exclusion across Europe. Like many others, I hoped that the Agenda would offer concrete solutions, also given that at the 2015 FutureLab Europe Spring Conference Matthias Ruete, Director General of the Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs of the European Commission, profoundly assured that the future of the European Union (EU) depends on our ability to develop more effective migration policies. Nevertheless, upon reading it, it became clear that the Agenda cannot be the piece of paper that Ruete had in mind: it fails to address the existing shortcomings and, more importantly, lacks the ingredients to promote an inclusive and peaceful society that comprehensively respects human rights.
We all are too aware of the hundreds of migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean in the last few months and indeed the Agenda recognises the urgent need to save lives at sea. At the same time though, it puts a disproportional importance on preventing migrants from coming to Europe, targeting criminal smuggling networks and working in partnership with third countries to tackle migration flows. By doing so, it undermines the fundamental rights enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention as the Commission actively pursues to stop migrants from applying for asylum in the European Union although the Agenda hypocritically claims that “the EU must continue to offer protection to those in need”.
The Agenda also fails to introduce legal tools that allow migrants to come to Europe safely and legally. In fact, have you ever wondered why thousands of refugees escaping war, oppression and persecution take the dangerous journey on the boats that could cost their lives rather than just buy a cheap airplane ticket and comfortably fly to Europe? Professor Hans Rosling from the Karolinska Institute eloquently explains how the European Union has escaped its responsibility of offering asylum to those in need with the EU Directive 2001/51/EC. It requires that national carriers make sure that all passengers have valid documents to enter the European Union, but also has a provision that this does not apply to refugees who want to come to Europe on the basis of the Geneva Convention. Therefore the EU has transferred the duty of determining who is a refugee to the staff at the check-in counters of transport companies in third countries. Carriers are obliged to cover all the costs of returning an irregular migrant and due to this financial threat, all passengers’ travel documents are thoroughly checked by carriers’ staff. For these reasons, perspective migrants cannot fly to Europe to apply for asylum and their only choice is to embark on life-threatening journeys across the Mediterranean. I must admit, it is a brilliant scheme: carriers do not wish to take any risks, so obviously no passenger without a valid visa is allowed to board. And the EU raises its hands: “hey, we do allow refugees to fly in. It is not our fault that airlines deny refugees from boarding”.
The European Agenda on Migration doesn’t promote a chance of parameters, but instead it proposes the opening of pilot shelters in Niger by the end of the year to provide information to the migrants before it is too late to deter them from embarking on a journey to Europe. In reality, Brussels is more concerned with keeping illegal migrants out of Europe rather than with saving their lives. Another clear indication of this is the launch of a military mission to tackle the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated that: “As summer comes, more people are travelling so we want to have the operation in place as soon as possible, if it is to deter the traffickers’ and smugglers’ organisations.” The Guardian revealed that the strategy paper for the mission focuses on an air and naval campaign, but the strikes could also include ground forces. The military operations inevitably will cause “collateral” damage as innocent people boarding or on the vessels will be killed during the attack. The Libyan government expressed its concerns of mistakenly targeting fishermen’s boats and rejects the EU’s proposal to authorise use of force. Refugee rights groups are alarmed as the plan will simply lead to more deaths. Michael Diedring, the secretary-general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), stressed: “An unintended consequence of this mission is that it may even lead to more deaths. If there is a shortage of vessels, even more people will be packed into them. There is even a possibility, given the desperate situation these people face, that they might try to construct their own boats.”
Is this really the Europe that was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize?
At the same time, several NGOs have welcomed the positive outcomes of the Agenda, including the quota system inviting states to share the burden of 40,000 migrants over the next two years. Unsurprisingly though, many member states, including the UK, Hungary and France have stated they oppose the plan as it might worsen the migration crisis and in fact intensify anti-immigration sentiments. However we must question the ambitions of Brussels as Natasha Bertaud, a European Commission spokeswoman, told the Telegraph:” [the quota system] is not binding. It is only a recommendation.”
In Europe migration is such a toxic issue that no decision-maker is willing to address it in a rightful manner, because using an effective human rights based-approach to solve the crisis might cost your political career. Heads of member states are outraged because of 20,000 migrants, which ultimately is just a drop in the ocean. There are almost one million refugees in Turkey, 750 000 in Jordan and the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya alone hosts 335,000 refugees. In fact there are more refugees in the world than ever before. And still the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in opposing the 2820 refugees France should receive, has the audacity to affirm that his country has already done a lot.
The European Agenda on Migration was an excellent opportunity to show that we are no longer willing to have the blood of thousands of migrants on our hands. But instead of focusing on saving lives, we care more about preventative measures. The Agenda should have robustly demanded member states to use legal avenues to assist refugees, such as humanitarian visas, but it just asks member states to make a full use ofthe other legal avenues available to persons in need of protection”, and lacks concrete proposals and demands. But I guess we have a fine proposal to set up pilot shelters in Niger to help the migrants.
Matthias Ruete said the future of the EU depends on our ability to develop more effective migration policies. Let me say that after reading the EU Agenda on Migration, that the future does not look very bright.