Can Europe Make It?

On the verge of failure or success: the complex relationship of Europe and migration

This International Migrants Day, the warm solidarity shown by local populations is at odds with the attempts of European institutions to criminalise people on arrival. And there are signs of progress.

Anna Lodeserto Olga Vukovic
18 December 2014
Commemoration of refugee migrants who died in the Mediterranean.

Commemoration of refugee migrants who died in the Mediterranean. Stefano Ronchini /Demotix. All rights reserved.There are those who die trying to reach Europe’s borders, escaping from poverty, violence, famine, dictatorships, wars, persecution, in search of a dignified life. There are those who are detained, who experience human rights abuses while being detained or while waiting for their legal status to be determined. There are those who make it, who are inside the borders and in transit, from their point of arrival, trying to reach their final destination.

Those who have reached their final destination, having overcome the dangerous journey and all it comes with, have only just begun, because a residency permit does not necessarily mean a home, employment, or becoming part of the local community.

The journey of a migrant can be a long, lonely, confusing and dangerous one, and their stories often go untold, their struggles unnoticed because detention centres, reception facilities, even housing, are mostly strategically located on the outskirts of cities. Out of sight, out of mind.

We were involved in coordinating the Transeuropa Caravans project, carried out by the transnational membership organization, European Alternatives, ahead of the European Parliament elections in the first semester of 2014, and this project went directly to these locations, to meet with migrants who came to Europe through various means and for different reasons, and speak to some of the admirable, dedicated individuals fighting for them, working to help them make sense of the system and find a dignified life. Their stories deserve a far better ending.

A new migration policy for Europe and the Mediterranean region

In terms of political framework at a European level, there is much progress to be made. From advocating for the closure of detention centres throughout Europe and exploring alternatives to administrative detention and human rights violations that take place in them, to reviewing the ‘Return Directive’ and trying to find collaborative responses to the growing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean - work must be focused on highlighting many areas where concrete policy change is urgently needed.

The Strategic guidelines for the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice included in the draft European Council Conclusions of June 2014 aim to replace the “Stockholm Programme” which expires in December 2014. It is one of the most recent and specific instruments, which sets the political orientation regarding a series of policies including immigration and asylum. These guidelines should offer a pathway for future policy development in the coming years, but they risk representing yet another “missed opportunity”. The next legislative phase seems to be focused on the consolidation and implementation of existing rules, while humanitarian crises are mounting within the European neighborhood and public skepticism towards both the European project and governments’ approaches to immigration is also increasing, as the results of the last European parliamentary elections made evident.

A focal point for migration issues, with a sufficient mandate and clear responsibilities, is now necessary to embody all the voices so far misrepresented from throughout Europe and beyond. Europe can neither postpone nor ignore any longer the adoption of concrete measures and responses to the continuous search for better living conditions that govern migration flows between economically unequal countries and regions which almost every day now  result in the tragic shipwrecks that occur in the Mediterranean sea.

This is especially urgent in a time when we are seeing unprecedented numbers of deaths and tragedies at Europe’s borders, a hardening in migration policy in all European countries as well as in negative attitudes towards the ‘other’ influenced by prejudice and discrimination.

Relevant EU instruments such as legislation, policy measures and operational programmes could be precious resources in this response but they are not yet fit for purpose in effectively tackling current problems and emergencies. The will of Europe is the will of national governments. Accordingly, the scope of action granted to the European Commission and EU agencies is the scope assigned to them by the Member States. For a common policy to release its full potential, part of the EU acquis could be improved to better fit with the changing characteristics of migration flows. Despite the Temporary Protection Directive 2001/55/EC, and Qualification Directive 2004/83/EC (on Refugees and Subsidiary Protection), nowadays at least 60 different non-harmonised forms of protection status exist, making it more difficult to examine the situation in each country or to ensure the respect of minimum protection standards for migrants.

On October 3, 2013, 368 migrants (many of whom have never been identified) died after having crossed the Mediterranean in a perilous boat a few meters from the coast of Lampedusa. This provoked a wave of indignation everywhere and threw a shadow of shame and powerlessness over Europe. Some national legislations do not make a definitive distinction between those providing humanitarian assistance or rescue at sea and those defined as “facilitators of unauthorised entries”. This created an added burden for the local population providing assistance to people in such distress. Such wide solidarity shown by the local populations is at odds with the attempts of the institutions to criminalise people on their arrival without differentiating their status.

In many EU Member States asylum seekers are treated as criminals and subject to long periods of detention usually in inhuman conditions, whatever their status may be. Operations of border patrolling run under FRONTEX coordination do not do enough, it is alleged, to abide by European Fundamental Rights protection measures. Migrants are all too often deprived of their right to apply for international protection in a safe place.

After the EU elections, many experts on migration and integration issues started to point out what was needed to guide the future work of the Commission concerning EU citizenship, freedom of movement and immigration, both as separate and autonomous dossiers, but also  as interlinked, if one thinks of immigration and freedom of movement in terms of the mobility of people to and within the EU. The idea of grouping them into one big portfolio - “Citizenship and Mobility” – has also been called for by Jean-Claude Juncker. Right after his nomination as President of the European Commission on 15 July 2014, he called for a new common policy on migration, referring to the increasing death toll in Mediterranean Sea as evidence that a more humanitarian approach is urgently needed at the European level.

Juncker stated his intention of entrusting this new Commissioner with special responsibilities on migration, which he duly did a few weeks later, to address not only Member States but also the third countries concerned. A proposal for an even more specifically-oriented new Commissioner on Mediterranean issues has also been under discussion over the past six months. This represents an important gathering of expectations around the urgent need for a new migration policy, matched with the political will to effect concrete legal and policy developments at international and European level.

The ‘hidden’ potential of migrant integration beyond a few virtuous cities 

The language of policy often seems detached from the realities on the ground, and migration discourse throughout Europe rarely shows the human face of migration. The aim of the Transeuropa Caravans was precisely this; collecting and representing a wide range of voices who often go unheard by politicians, understanding the needs which aren’t being met by the state as well as exploring solutions which aren’t being supported by institutions.

Creating a bridge between migrants and those working with them and policy and decision makers can be the only solution to ensure that policy change will have an impact in the right places. From our visits to towns such as Riace (southern Italy) which boasts a particular model of outreach replicated in still very few exemplary European cities, or to Katerini (Greece) and Terras da Costa (Portugal), home to communitarian kitchens, it became obvious that citizens themselves can and already are doing much to create sustainable development plans at the local level, in some cases without placing any kind of financial or administrative burden on governments.

Hidden below the surface of the migrant squats of Calais, the handicraft production laboratories of Riace, the greenhouses where migrants work in the hinterland of Eboli, the registration centre of Sofia, and asylum centre in Poland, the journey of the Caravans provided a unique opportunity to be part of a different conversation, distant from the current debates taking place at national and European levels.

This way, during our intensive journey with the Transeuropa Caravans we really had a concrete opportunity to see and report on this ‘hidden’ face and how calls for a comprehensive overhaul of European migration policies are increasingly widespread and vocal as a result. The number of individuals coming to Europe, living through the cycle from arrival and transit to making a home, as well as those working with them to help them create settled, dignified lives, are ever growing. The tragedies can be avoided. These tragedies have increased the speed of convergence of European NGOs and civil society movements around demands for concrete policy change.

It remains extremely important and urgent to strengthen the advocacy capacities of all NGOs and their networks involved in this work, while also inspiring other, often weaker and less visible, movements to take part in common actions on these issues at a transnational level. All the voiceless and courageous people who are now beginning to make themselves heard will not shrink from this commitment. It is our duty to be on their side.

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