Migration: Europe’s Moral Crisis

In 2015 images of hundreds of Syrian families trying to cross barbed wire fences on the Hungarian border, to be met by hostility and armed police, shook the European continent from its apathy and gave rise to the phase of the Willkommenskultur (“welcoming culture”). What followed was a courageous…

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Migration: Europe’s Moral Crisis

26/04/2017 - Por: Simon Meretab

In 2015 images of hundreds of Syrian families trying to cross barbed wire fences on the Hungarian border, to be met by hostility and armed police, shook the European continent from its apathy and gave rise to the phase of the Willkommenskultur (“welcoming culture”). What followed was a courageous approach by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, who invited refugees to Germany and the decision to suspend, in the summer of 2015, the Dublin Regulation, the European law that states that refugees must register and have their asylum applications examined in the first EU country they enter. The European Commission agreed to create a resettlement program to redistribute 160,000 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean asylum seekers from the frontline countries of Italy and Greece over the next two years.

In 2016 this brief timid opening came to a drastic end. The Dublin Regulation was reinstated only a few months after its suspension, and the growth of far right movements which threatened moderate governments (Pegida and Alternative for Deutschland in Germany, Front National in France, Lega Nord and Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy, Party for Freedom in the Netherlands) led most European leaders to fear that any opening borders to migrants would be a certain electoral gift to populist and far-right movements.

In 2016 Germany was rocked by a series of terror attacks and episodes of violence: the Cologne attacks on New Year’s Eve, the attack on a train in Wuerzburg by an Afghan refugee, the machete attack by a Syrian refugee in Reutlingen, the shooting in Munich by a teenager of Iranian descent, and finally the Christmas market attack by a Tunisian man. Despite the fact that most of these attacks did not involve asylum seekers, and data shows that refugees and migrants are responsible for a minority of violent acts of all sorts, last year was the nail on the coffin of any “open doors” policy that might have led Europe to end the gravest migrant crisis since World War II.

Despite a drastic increase in the number of refugees entering Europe over the previous year, by 2016 the numbers of the European Commission’s resettlement program were shockingly low: with only 1 in 20 refugees relocated, the EU had met just 5% of its goal. By 2017 the number has risen to a mere 10% of the 160.000 asylum seekers that European countries committed to resettle. To this day Hungary, Austria and Poland still refuse to participate in the resettlement plan, due to end this September.

The most damning evidence of Europe’s lack of political will to address the crisis, and the sign of a profound moral deficit within European institutions, is perhaps reflected in the European deal with Turkey of March 2016, a mechanism to reduce the number of “irregular” migrants and refugees departing Turkey to enter the EU through Greece. Turkey has received 3 billion euros to stop migrants from reaching the Greek shores in what is for all purposes a mass-return operation. The deal also envisaged that all Syrians arriving irregularly to Greece would be sent back to Turkey, with the promise that for each Syrian readmitted to Turkey, a EU member State would agree to resettle another Syrian refugee from Turkey.

The brazen violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and refugee law that these collective expulsions entail was immediately denounced by human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have produced reports denouncing that despite the EU-Turkey deal’s promise that all migrants arriving to Greece would “be processed individually by the Greek authorities in accordance with the Asylum Procedures Directive,” in reality many Syrians have been rejected on the Greek border, and have seen their right to seek asylum denied.

Furthermore, the EU-Turkey deal immediately worsened the already disastrous living conditions of camps on the Greek islands where thousands of refugees live, many of which are unaccompanied minors. Refugees in these camps lack any legal assistance and are simply waiting to be sent back to Turkey. The living conditions of the 13,200 asylum seekers, (37% of which are children, including unaccompanied or separated children) still trapped on the Greek islands have been described in a number of NGO reports, including by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Amnesty International. Conditions in these camps are so severe that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced it would no longer take funds from the European Union as a protest against the EU-Turkey deal.

Perhaps the most shocking report, produced by Save the Children, detailed the devastating impact of the EU-Turkey deal on children in the camps. The report identifies numerous cases of depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, aggressive behavior, and alcohol and substance abuse amongst children in the camps as young as 9 years old. The chilling reality outlined in the report stands in stark contrast to the European Commission’s heralding of the “positive and tangible results despite the challenging circumstances” of the deal, and the many European leaders who have praised the “continued trend of progress” and the “steadily delivering results” of the plan. The reactions to the deal by European political elites is even more shocking considering that a year ago the EU presented the plan as a temporary measure to “end the human suffering and restore public order”.

The bottom line is that, thank to this inhumane plan, European institutions can tout the effective overall reduction in the number of migrants reaching the Greek shores (last January there were 1,500 arrivals compared to 70,000 in the same month in 2016), but in doing so display an unprecedented callousness and blatant violation of international law. It is therefore very alarming to read that the Commission and leaders of some member states cite the EU-Turkey deal as a model. A proposal has already been made to replicate the plan in more than 16 countries across Africa and the Middle East. These deals would impose cuts on development aid and trade on those countries who do not cooperate in stemming migration to Europe or in facilitating forcible returns, and it would reward those who do. Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan are among the potential partners.

The numbers tell it all: in 2015, at the peak of the crisis, 1.3 million migrants reached Europe; that amounts to 0.2% of the EU’s total population. In 2016 the number dropped drastically to 364,000. While in 2015 the total number of deaths recorded reached 3,771, in 2016 it surpassed 5,000. Despite there being four times less arrivals, the journey became more and more deadly. It is therefore hard to overstate the true level of the crisis Europe is facing. That is to say not the refugee crisis itself, which really boils down to a political problem, but the moral crisis of a continent that is jeopardizing its values. Following his visit to Greece, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, offered what may be the most authoritative words thus far on the EU’s shortsightedness: “The EU and EU member States have not developed a long term strategy regarding migration […] and the EU seems to always be reacting to currents events without strategic planning […]. Presenting the current situation as a humanitarian crisis only demonstrates shortsightedness. The real crisis in Europe resides in the lack of political will, resulting from the absence of a common political vision […] of how migration is part of Europe’s present and future.”

Italy and Migration

Despite the clear reduction in the overall numbers of migrants throughout the Mediterranean, sea arrivals to Italy actually increased in 2016. Tighter controls, a series of fences on the eastern front, and the effects of the EU-Turkey deal on the so-called Balkan route have effectively reduced the number of migrant arrivals through Greece and Eastern Europe. Although it might look like Italy’s influx has risen because migrants are left with few other options than the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Sicily, a close look at numbers show this is not the case. Whereas Greece receives refugees predominantly from Syria and Afghanistan, Italy’s influx is predominately African. Asylum seekers from Nigeria, Eritrea, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Somalia complete a treacherous land journey through Libya before embarking on the final passage across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italian shores. With rival parliaments backed by opposing military factions, Libya’s instability has made it a safe haven for human traffickers, who have prospered and grown their business.

Despite Libya’s insecurity, the Italian government has signed an accord with the UN-backed Libyan interim government with the aim of keeping the tide of refugees from reaching its shores. The content of the agreement is profoundly disturbing: Italy will provide financial aid and training to the Libyan coastal guard in order to help them stop precarious vessels which so often sink while carrying staggering human loads. The boats will then be brought back to the Libyan shores and their passengers put in “temporary hosting camps.” Arjan Hehenkamp, director general of MSF, has denounced the idea that migrants can be housed in a humane way on Libyan soil as “simply impossible”. He added that anyone who thinks Libya is a safe port for migrants “is purposefully living between alternative facts and la la land… It’s simply impossible right now to think that Libya can be considered part of the solution.”

The shocking conditions of Libyan detention centers for migrants, which are no more than warehouses managed by militias, have been condemned by many human rights and humanitarian organizations, including the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) who has called the conditions of migrants held in Libya “deplorable.” Documented abuses include torture, rape, and killings of people who have committed no other crime than being intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastal guards. And yet, the EU welcomed the agreement on the day of its signing and declared it was “ready to support it.”

This is a sickening display of cynicism by the Italian government and EU institutions that call into question the core values that hold the Western world together. The European community will leave its mark on history as a prosperous group of countries who faced the most serious refugee crisis of its era, and chose to turn its back. It is sadly ironic that a month after its signing (in March 2016), the Italy-Libya deal was suspended by a Libyan judge, thank to the activism of a Libyan human rights lawyer, Azza Maghur. Magur filed a court claim on constitutional and humanitarian bases, citing the grave human rights violations, danger, and insecurity to which migrants are exposed in the unstable context of Libya, where no one can guarantee the rights of asylum seekers are respected.

Side Event on Migration

This March, during Human Rights Council 34th session, RIDH sponsored a side event at the Palais des Nations, inviting a panel of Italian NGOs and civil society members and a representative from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to discuss challenges faced by countries like Italy on the forefront of the migration crisis. Panelists from civil society organizations like MEDU (Medici per I Diritti Umani) and Baobab shared their experiences of working in Italy, offering medical and logistical assistance. NGOs “A Buon Diritto” and CILD (Coalizione Italiana Libertà e Diritti civili) described how they offer legal assistance and counseling to newly arrived asylum seekers. Every day these organizations face the direct consequences of policies decided at the national level.

In the background of our discussion was the law decree on migration which has now been voted into law by the Italian parliament. The picture painted by our speakers was very bleak. With the new migration law the Italian government has expanded centers for identification and expulsion, which now become Repatriation Centers. These centers have been heavily criticized by a number of human rights organizations for being costly and highly inefficient, largely failing to stem “irregular” migration flows, and above all violating human dignity. As one speaker, Ms. Corallina Lopez Curzi (CILD) pointed out, the new Italian approach is an increase and acceleration of forced returns, well within the framework of what European migration policies prescribe. Another contentious point is the restriction of jurisdictional guarantees for asylum seekers. With the new law, asylum seekers can no longer appeal the denial of an asylum request. Panelists argued that this amounts to waiving our collective duty to safeguard the rights of individuals at risk of violence, torture, discrimination and death.

With its new law, Italy’s approach on migration works on two fronts: on one side criminalizing migration by resorting to more detentions and expulsions. Rather than seeking political solutions, they violate the rights of individuals who seek protection and ignore the issue of economic migrants. At the same time, Italy seeks agreements with transit countries like Libya and Sudan, while turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations taking place in these countries suffering a democratic deficit. Italy’s actions meet support and praise within European institutions seeking similar short-sighted partnerships to stem the flow of migrants, promote expulsions, and deny migrants and refugees access under the false pretense of wanting to stop the deaths of those embarking on a dangerous journey.

Shamefully, European governments and institutions are presenting deterrence policies against migration as if they were humanitarian solutions. However, the facts unfortunately show that there is nothing humanitarian about these policies and their only consequence so far has been to worsen the suffering of those people they claim to help. What Europe is missing is a long-term vision on how to address migration and mobility in a manner that offers secure channels for people to safely reach the continent without being subject to violence, exploitation and death. What is also lacking is a policy change to address the majority of those arriving to the European continent who are not refugees escaping from war-torn countries, but economic migrants employing the most ancient poverty reduction tool known to mankind: migration. Without a long-term vision, all Europe will be left with is more brutality, more xenophobia, and a drive towards securitization.