New EU migration pact must dust off fundamental rights

The EU's new Pact on Migration and Asylum is an opportunity to take a different approach. To take a breath, to remember the values that the European project was founded upon, and to dust off the good old fundamental rights and put them to use.

The unfolding humanitarian crisis in Idlib is seeing hundreds of thousands fleeing towards the Turkish border.

Turkey has loosened its grip on its border to Greece and Bulgaria. At the same time a rapidly deteriorating situation in Libya has forced more than 170,000 people from their homes since last April, mostly due to clashes in the southwest and in the north.

Arrivals to the European shores and borders are increasing, and so are the political measures to clamp down on rights and to reinforce and close borders, rather than to protect people in need.

The EU's new Pact on Migration and Asylum is an opportunity to take a different approach. To take a breath, to remember the values that the European project was founded upon, and to dust off the good old fundamental rights and put them to use.

Not merely for the benefit of the European citizens, but also for those fleeing conflict and violence and seeking protection in Europe.

While the scale of global displacement is high and the challenges related to irregular migration are real in Europe and beyond, the situation remains manageable.

It requires the political leadership to insist on facts, instead of contributing to instilling unnecessary fear and insecurity in the European public by supporting unhelpful narratives of unmanageable movements and unprecedented crisis.

The European Commission has offered positive indications of a shift away from a crisis-narrative over the past months.
Recent days' reactions by the European Commission to the Greek border closures have not exactly been reassuring.

However, hope springs eternal that the positive intentions have survived consultations with member states, and that it will translate into a more balanced approach with rights and solutions at the core.

Why a new pact?

A quick glance at the situation at the EU's external borders demonstrates well why there is indeed a need for a new approach – and one that starts and ends with a focus on the upholding of rights.

In Bosnia, Danish Refugee Council (DRC) staff working at the border with Croatia bears witness to daily pushbacks by the Croatian border police of refugees and migrants moving on the Western Balkan route.

Practices include theft, extortion, destruction of property, physical abuse and degrading treatment, and denial of access to asylum procedures.

In several cases, violence has been reported against children.

On one such occasion, DRC staff assisted two single mothers travelling with five children. The women had their personal belongings confiscated and reported being beaten by the police. One of the mothers stated that even her four-year-old child experienced violence.

At the Greek border, men, women and children in thousands are getting tear-gassed and refused entry without any process to determine their protection needs – seemingly with the backing by the EU leadership.

And the humanitarian disaster on the Greek islands characterised by extreme overcrowding, undignified and dangerous living conditions, and a marked increase in negative coping-mechanisms such as suicide attempts and self-harming among children speaks its own clear language.

Human suffering at the EU's external borders is treated as collateral damage, necessary to uphold policies of deterrence.

Refusing to support efforts to evacuate unaccompanied children off the Greek islands and welcome them to safety is even argued by some member states to be for the greater good, as such measures would surely send more children on dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers.

A similar rationale is used to justify the recent political agreement on a new EU naval mission in the central Mediterranean aimed at enforcing the arms embargo and appearing to be carefully designed not to save lives.

With a deteriorating situation in Libya, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and Libyans themselves are fleeing indiscriminate shelling and continued fighting.

An increasingly effective EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard however forcibly returns many to Libya.

The new political agreement will continue to support the Libyan Coast Guard and has indeed included provisions to withdraw its naval assets should it be considered a pull-factor for migration.

One has only to take a quick look at the situation in Libya to understand the many push-factors that drive people to attempt dangerous sea crossings.

What do we recommend?

First and foremost, we need a new pact that takes rights and accountability for rights violations seriously.

The focus should be on compliance with EU asylum law rather than on a legislative reform, except for the introduction of measures for internal solidarity.

A new Pact on Migration and Asylum should as a key priority ensure that member states comply with the existing EU asylum acquis, and act when rights are violated.

Attempts to reach safety in Europe are not illegal and should not be treated as such. Access to the asylum procedure for all and the principle of non-refoulement – the right not to be returned to a place where a person's freedom or life is in danger - is and must continue to be the corner stone of a fair and efficient asylum system in the EU.

We need a new pact that commits member states to address challenges jointly as a Union.

A mechanism that establishes well-functioning solidarity measures and ensures responsibility sharing among EU member states is needed.

When responsibility-sharing fails, and a limited number of countries carry the responsibility alone, displaced people are not assisted and protected as they need and are entitled to be. The current situation at the Greek-Turkish border is a case in point.

And finally, we need a new pact that practices what it preaches – also when it comes to its relations and partnerships with countries outside the EU.

The objective of reducing arrivals to the EU must never be at the expense of ensuring access to protection for those in need. We need proportions in the policy response and political attention to where the needs are greatest.

The EU should support long-term solutions, identify opportunities to strengthen peace-building capacities as well as good governance and take the lead in pursuing political solutions to displacement.

Current short-sighted policies of deterrence, containment and externalisation come at the high price of putting at stake the core principles of international human rights and refugee law, and the commitment to protect the basic rights of refugees and migrants.

It is time to dust off the good old fundamental rights and put them to use.



This op-ed was published in EU Observer 10 March 2020.