Europe can do more for migrants

Migrants sleeping by the sea in Ventimiglia, on the Italian border with France, earlier this month. No European Union member ranks among the 10 major refugee-hosting countries, yet Europeans act as if they were on the verge of being "invaded".
Migrants sleeping by the sea in Ventimiglia, on the Italian border with France, earlier this month. No European Union member ranks among the 10 major refugee-hosting countries, yet Europeans act as if they were on the verge of being "invaded".PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

STRASBOURG (France) - During the past seven decades, European countries have painstakingly tried to rebuild a continent once shattered by war and atrocities according to the values of solidarity and human rights. We built institutions to prevent the crimes of the past, and we made a commitment to help those in need of protection.

This process has now gone awry. In its response to refugees, Europe is backsliding on that commitment. Immigration has become such a contentious issue that it is tearing apart what remains of the European project and its facade of solidarity.

I have observed this regression in many countries. Spain recently amended legislation to enable border guards to physically repel migrants arriving from Morocco at Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish territories in North Africa. It has pushed ahead with this policy despite international criticism that these laws threaten the right to asylum and erode international protections for refugees.

European countries... with a total population of more than 740 million... are among the richest, most secure countries in the world, but they pretend to be threatened by the idea of admitting 600,000 asylum seekers a year. Europe needs to take a long, hard look at itself.

In Hungary, the government is conducting a racist poster campaign about migrants and asylum seekers, feeding popular prejudice about refugees "stealing" locals' jobs. The Hungarian government has also announced a plan to build a nearly 4m-high fence on its border with Serbia to keep migrants out. This is similar to what Bulgaria has done on its border with Turkey.

In France, a chronically underfunded refugee reception system obliges many asylum seekers to live on the streets. In Austria, the government just halted the processing of asylum applications, ostensibly to make the country less attractive to asylum seekers and to force other European countries to do their share.

In Denmark, a populist party now holds the balance of power after running an electoral campaign on anti-immigrant rhetoric, including calls for stricter border controls.

The Syrian refugee crisis vividly illustrates this unwillingness to share responsibilities towards refugees. Turkey is dealing with almost two million displaced Syrians, yet its fellow Council of Europe countries hesitate to accept a few hundred Syrian refugees. With the exception of Armenia, Germany and Sweden, the response of the other 43 European countries has been shameful.

Not even the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean have made European governments shift position. While Italy alone was saving migrants from drowning, some fellow European Union member states, like Germany and Britain, criticised it, saying that operations like Italy's Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue mission acted as a magnet for more migrants. Member countries greeted the European Commission's recent proposal of mandatory quotas for redistributing asylum seekers with open hostility. After acrimonious discussions, they agreed to a much weaker scheme.

Divided as they are, European leaders do share a view of migration as a security problem, often using inappropriately militaristic language. The European Commission exhibited the same approach in last week's proposal to strengthen the powers of the European Union border agency, Frontex, to fingerprint, detain and expel migrants.

More worrying, the European Union has continued along the path of "externalising", or outsourcing, border controls. This involves paying countries that have either weak democracy or none at all to keep migrants away from European coasts.

It can also mean putting pressure on European countries that are not member states - in the Balkans in particular - to reduce the number of their citizens applying for asylum in the European Union with the threat of restoring mandatory visa requirements. These tactics have led to the adoption, usually by Europe's proxies, of unlawful measures like ethnic profiling at border crossings, the confiscation of travel documents and physical measures to repel migrants.

Especially offensive is that, with the exception of Turkey, European countries are far from experiencing the refugee pressures on poorer, less stable countries like Pakistan, Lebanon and Ethiopia. No European Union member ranks among the 10 major refugee-hosting countries. Yet Europeans act as if they were on the verge of being "invaded".

European countries have lost all sense of proportion. With a total population of more than 740 million, they are among the richest, most secure countries in the world, but they pretend to be threatened by the idea of admitting 600,000 asylum seekers a year. Europe needs to take a long, hard look at itself.

The European Union could start by overhauling its laws on asylum and migration. Providing more avenues for legal migration, with measures like eased humanitarian visas and family reunification rules, would reduce the number of migrants taking perilous routes. This would help cut the ground from under the smugglers, who profit when restrictions are harsh. And laws ensuring a humane approach to the needs of migrants should replace provisions that criminalise those who enter by irregular means.

We also need a European-run Mare Nostrum, creating effective search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. European countries should embrace proposals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, especially on the need to resettle people fleeing oppression.

The European Union could also implement policies in refugees' countries of origin to help eradicate the causes of migration. When it signs cooperation agreements with those countries, it must ensure that its partners respect human rights.

Arguably the most pressing challenge is to address public anxiety on the issue. Instead of pandering to fear, political leaders must confront the challenge from a principled standpoint. The values of tolerance, acceptance and solidarity have defined the European project. Managing migration is not an easy task, but we cannot abandon our principles now.

NEW YORK TIMES

The writer is Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline 'Europe can do more for migrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe