EU leaders cannot continue to let populism win on migration

by Gerasimos Kouvaras | ActionAid
Friday, 21 September 2018 14:30 GMT

A migrant rescued by NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue boat in central Mediterranean Sea sits on board before arriving at the port of Algeciras in San Roque, southern Spain, August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Medina

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Any agreement on migration must reject the idea that there is a 'quick way' to overcome the challenges of forced displacement on this scale

The world’s most vulnerable families are being vilified. More people than ever before are being forced to flee their home countries due to conflict, persecution and increasing climate disasters. But instead of being welcomed, they are being trapped in makeshift camps in subhuman conditions, while the EU far right attempts to add even more misery to their lives.

The worst refugee crisis on record is being used by politicians who are intent on deepening divides within communities and who sell a vision of a Europe that pulls up the drawbridge, closing itself off from the world beyond its immediate borders.

Boats continue to cross the Mediterranean Sea. People continue to risk their lives for one final chance at freedom from the worst possible horrors. There are now 20,000 refugees awaiting a decision on their fate in the Greek islands alone, with 10,000 in Lesvos, which has an official capacity of 3,500.

These mothers, fathers, daughters and sons dismissed simply as “economic migrants” are people first. They are the 1,600, including children, who have perished in the Mediterranean Sea this year alone, driven from their homes by forces beyond their control. They are the 17,000 people living in desperate conditions which do not meet humanitarian standards who, as I write, remain crammed into Greek island reception. And they are the people rescued by humanitarian ships off the coast of Libya, who, for days-on-end, have been denied safe harbour.

This is the brutal reality that is the backdrop as EU leaders remain divided and fail to reach an agreement on migration at this week’s summit in Salzburg, Austria.

The meeting, despite grabbing headlines as a Brexit showdown, is the first in a series of critical international meetings on migration, and its discussions will help to inform decisions taken at the next EU Council meeting. In New York, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convenes to consider responses to forced displacement and Action Aid International will be there to add the voices of the most vulnerable people from across the globe to the debate. And in December, the international community comes together in Marrakech to adopt a Global Compact on Migration – the first UN agreement intended to address the challenges of forced displacement and mobility.

International NGOs and the civil society cannot let the rising tide of populism sweeping across Europe and the Western world win. Instead of creating compassionate, long-term measures that address the real drivers of forced migration, some EU leaders are proposing only inhumane, sticking plaster “solutions”. One disturbing example is the most recent madcap plan of Austria’s interior minister, Herbert Kickl, and his Italian counterpart, Matteo Salvini – to leave refugees stuck at sea while their asylum claims are processed.

Over the summer, the EU has announced a series of sinister measures in response to calls by national governments to “deal with” migration to Europe. These measures include the creation of “controlled centres” within EU states to detain people, including children, seeking asylum; a new system for the “disembarkation of migrants” to third-party countries outside of the EU, such as Libya, in North Africa; and the establishment of a new beefed-up EU border force “to target migrants” in the Mediterranean Sea. We fear these proposals will strip people of their rights and fail to provide a fair or effective way of processing asylum claims.

The three proposals signal that instead of working at a global level to deal with the drivers of forced displacement and mobility, including with countries in Africa and the Middle East, EU leaders are sleepwalking into the creation of a “Fortress Europe”, as they dance to the tuneof the populist politicians seeking to dehumanise people fleeing persecution and desperation.

If EU leaders are to remain true to the founding values of humanity and human rights upon which the European Union was founded, there must be assurances that people’s rights will be upheld. Creating more overcrowded, so-called “hotspot” camps, where women and children are detained and left at risk of abuse, is not a sustainable and humane solution. Any collective efforts must make good on commitments to support the “decongestion” of such reception centres in Greece, ending the inhumane conditions in places like Moria, as ActionAid and other NGOs have been demanding from 2015 until today, when the conditions seem to be worse than ever.

So, any agreement on migration must reject the idea that there is a “quick way” to overcome the challenges of forced displacement on this scale. To convince themselves that the EU Commission President’s announcement of 10,000 new border guards is the answer, would be naive as it would be counter-productive.

If EU governments do not work together to address the drivers of displacement and mobility, they should not be surprised when their “Fortress Europe” policy fails on their own terms.

Gerasimos Kouvaras is Executive Director of ActionAid Greece, writing on behalf of ActionAid International.