Crisis in the Mediterranean: Europe must change course

As leaders of European Union member states prepare to meet to discuss the Mediterranean refugee crisis, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights sets the bar for an adequate response.

Nils Muižnieks
22 April 2015

Piquing Europe's conscience: demonstrators in Brussels earlier this week wore white masks to represent those who had drowned in the Mediterranean. Demotix / Frederik Sadones. All rights reserved.

The Mediterranean Sea has for centuries been the cradle of modern European civilisation. It has today become a huge graveyard, as thousands of migrants continue to drown under Europe’s distracted look. When in October 2013 a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa took the lives of 300 migrants, European leaders were unanimous in declaring ‘no more deaths’. Yet, 18 months and some 5,000 deaths later, we see these tragedies again and again.

Since last weekend more than 1,000 people have drowned off the coast of Libya and another 600 died during journeys to Europe earlier this year. In the first four months of 2015 we have already mourned half the number of people who died in 2014. As meteorological conditions improve, the season of death has just begun.

These tragedies were foreseeable and, as the Italians proved, preventable. Operation Mare Nostrum, put in place by the Italian government in October 2013, rescued more than 150,000 migrants in 14 months, seized five mother ships and brought to justice more than 300 alleged smugglers. Italy not only bore alone the cost of these operations, estimated at more than €100m, but also came under criticism from some fellow European Union member states, including Germany and the United Kingdom, which took the position that saving the lives of those in danger at sea was creating a magnet for irregular migration.

Unfortunately, to date, the EU’s response to this unprecedented loss of life has failed to rise to the challenge. While the Frontex-coordinated Joint Operation Triton has helped save several thousand migrants since its inception last November, its main role as a border-control mission does not sufficiently address the need to strengthen search-and-rescue capabilities in the Mediterranean.

It is high time for Europe to change its course and assume responsibility for preventing similar tragedies. Last Monday, EU foreign ministers adopted a ten-point action plan to improve Europe’s response to migratory flows. It is a first step in the right direction. But there is an urgent need to take concrete steps to enact adequate laws, devise effective policies and change political rhetoric concerning asylum-seekers and migrants.

Overhaul of European migration laws

One of the most urgent measures is reform of legislation governing asylum and migration. Tougher border controls only increase migrants’ vulnerability—and make smugglers richer. European states must develop transparent and efficient legal migration avenues.

In this context, legislation on humanitarian visas, as well as family reunification, should be eased. Many of the migrants taking their chances on perilous sea and land routes have family members regularly residing in Europe. It is cruel to restrict their right to family unity.

There is also a need to overhaul the Dublin Regulation, which allows the majority of EU member states to leave the challenges of dealing with the influx of asylum-seekers to frontline countries like Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain. The EU has still to make the much-needed adjustments to the Common European Asylum System to provide for effective solidarity with these countries, whose asylum and reception systems are overwhelmed and, in certain cases, even dysfunctional. Regrettably, most European countries seem unwilling to share responsibilities in terms of the reception and protection of refugees—as shown by the Syrian refugee crisis, for which only Germany and Sweden in the EU have tried to live up to their obligations. 

In addition, European states should rid from their laws provisions criminalising migrants’ irregular entry and presence. Laws allowing for the administrative detention of migrants should be repealed and replaced by laws which ensure a humane approach to the needs of migrants. In particular, despite international standards which clearly prohibit the detention of migrant children only because of their immigration status or that of their parents, most European countries still maintain internal legislation providing for the detention of these children and continue to detain them, sometimes in prison-like centres.   

Necessary migration-policy changes

Legislation alone, however, will not change the fate of migrants. Better migration policies are needed. First of all, Europe should establish a ‘European Mare Nostrum’, ensuring extensive search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Secondly, there needs to be an effective system to share protection and reception responsibilities. EU countries have to team up not only to save lives but also to alleviate the pressure on frontline countries and ensure respect of human-rights obligations by member states. The European Commission’s proposal to establish a voluntary pilot project on refugees’ resettlement is encouraging and should be fully embraced by all member states. The same positive response should be given to recent proposals from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, for life-saving actions in the Mediterranean, which include sensible and attainable measures to prevent tragedies and help resettle people in need of protection.

Tougher border controls only increase migrants’ vulnerability—and make smugglers richer.

Another proposal under discussion by European leaders is the long-debated idea of establishing asylum outposts in Africa and the Middle East. If such a measure can save lives, so much the better. But it must be part of a broader, human-rights based asylum-and-immigration strategy and should be subject to effective monitoring to safeguard the human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers. The offshore processing of asylum claims, often in areas whose human-rights records are not clean, must be done with the utmost care and can in no case mean diminishing responsibility for strict respect of the human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Development policies in the countries of origin are also needed to eradicate the main causes of migration: war, poverty and environmental disasters. This requires comprehensive and long-term action plans, in which host and origin countries work together to improve the protection of human rights of the people who feel themselves obliged to migrate for a better life.

In addition, governments should devote more attention and resources to the integration of refugees, including by strengthening the capacities of the local authorities which are essential actors in this process.

Eradicating anti-immigrant rhetoric

A third, key element in the migration equation is political discourse. Legislative and policy changes will hardly be possible if political leaders continue pandering to people’s fears and insecurities. Some mainstream politicians are surfing on the racist and xenophobic waves sweeping over Europe, often in connection with national and regional elections. This is the wrong approach. Political leaders and opinion-makers have to confront a fearful public opinion from a principled standpoint, stressing the values and principles that have defined a certain idea of Europe built on tolerance, acceptance and solidarity. They have to refocus the debate on the human-rights dimension of migration.

The role played by the media in this regard is absolutely crucial. Journalists and editors, who make an important contribution to shaping the public debate, should abstain from negative stereotyping of migrants and should inform the public about their situation in a fair way. Bringing examples of migrants’ successful integration in European societies into the public debate can help people understand that migrants are a resource and not a danger.

Striking the right balance between security and rights

Managing migration flows is certainly not an easy task—in particular now that wars and instability at Europe’s doorstep increase the pressure on people to leave and on states to find solutions. States have of course the right and duty to keep control of their borders and to know who is inside them. But this comes with the obligation to uphold international human-rights standards to ensure access to asylum, adequate protection and humane reception.

So far the EU has failed to strike a proper balance between these duties. Too much emphasis has been put on security concerns, to the detriment of human rights.

As the heads of state and government meet tomorrow to shape Europe’s future response to migration, my hope is that they will move from words to action. Europe has to move quickly from ineffective emergency plans to long-term policies which uphold its obligations towards immigrants and asylum-seekers—and save human lives.

European leaders do not need to reinvent the wheel but just to implement what the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the European Parliament, the International Organisation for Migration and many non-governmental organisations have been recommending for years—a more human-rights based migration-and-asylum policy. This change is possible, and it has to happen now. 

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