Sunday

5th Jul 2020

Opinion

EU's new migration pact must protect people on the move

  • EU commissioner for the "European Way of Life", Margaritas Schinas, will be masterminding the new EU Pact on Asylum and Migration when it is published this month (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

While attention and scrutiny have inevitably turned in recent weeks to the European Commission's efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19 has also served to expose the shortcomings in the EU's migration and asylum policies.

The health crisis has amplified the human cost of the EU's approach, which for the last five years, has been overly focused on preventing people from arriving on European soil, and relied on countries outside the Union to enforce the measures to do so.

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This imbalance risks undermining longer term EU objectives to strengthen resilience, increase economic opportunities and address the protection needs of people travelling along the route.

Further, it could jeopardise the EU's objective to protect and promote fundamental rights around the world and trigger a dangerous race to the bottom.

The upcoming EU Pact on Asylum and Migration offers a window of opportunity to reverse this trend.

The notoriously treacherous conditions along the central Mediterranean route, from sub-Saharan Africa to north Africa and across the Mediterranean to Italy, are a case in point.

People embark on this journey for myriad reasons – some are fleeing conflict and persecution, others are seeking to sustain themselves and their families with no other choice - but whatever the motivation, they all face dangers along the way; exposure to discriminatory laws, the risk of detention, kidnapping, forced labour or rape - hardships that are now further compounded by measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.

The International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council are seeing the impact of the lockdowns and movement restrictions that have worsened an already dire situation for refugees and migrants in countries along this route.

Their ability to move, access medical care, find work and shelter, is reduced.

In Niger alone, more than 2,000 people are stranded because of the pandemic unable to move on or return home, and lacking access to basic health services. For some the humanitarian corridors that are being currently discussed might be an option to return home.

In Mali refugees and migrants are being denied access to accommodation because of fears that the coronavirus will spread in confined spaces - leaving people who are already at risk of extortion, theft, rape and violence, without basic shelter. For others the cost of the journey, often assisted by smugglers, has surged.

One 28-year old man from Nigeria said after arriving in Libya: "The journey was hectic and was more difficult because of the coronavirus. The official price we bargained before we commenced the journey was tripled and we were locked up and forced to pay."

In Italy and Malta already strict border management and EU inaction on search and rescue in the central Mediterranean has been further complicated by movement restrictions in response to Covid-19, leaving even more refugees and migrants drifting at sea, and at increased risk of being returned to Libya, where hostilities escalate despite the global pleas for a ceasefire.

Interceptions at sea

Interceptions at sea have brought 3,200 people back to this unsafe country since January 2020, where 1,500 migrants and refugees remain detained in the official detention centres, and many more languish in unofficial facilities controlled by armed militia.

These men, women and children face the additional risk of enduring a pandemic in a country with a health system under pressure from nearly a decade of conflict, and a raging civil war.

While it is clear that EU cooperation agreements with third countries will remain central to EU asylum and migration policies, the new pact does offer an opportunity for Europe to prioritise humanitarian principles when renewing its partnerships, and to ensure it truly stands for the protection of the most vulnerable groups.

For this, there are three principles that must be met:

First, the new EU pact must respect and safeguard the right to seek asylum and adhere to the principle of non-refoulement.

This include increasing possibilities for safe pathways, establishing a new search and rescue operation designed to save lives at sea, and decriminalising humanitarian operations in Mediterranean. The reliance on the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return those fleeing violence and armed conflict in Libya must cease.

Second, humanitarian and development aid must not be tied to border control, but instead alleviate human suffering in the immediate term, and support work towards resilience, stability and economic development in the long term.

Third, the promotion of human rights must be front and centre in EU agreements with countries along migratory routes.

It is also vital for the EU to take all steps necessary to better understand the risks refugees and migrants face in third countries based on a strict due diligence process, including a robust human rights monitoring system.

Funding and relying on actors that violate and undermine human rights is not acceptable and risks contributing to the very instability that leads to displacement.

People will continue to seek refuge and better lives no matter what the barriers, and the EU has an obligation to save lives, provide refugee protection and uphold human rights.

While Covid-19 did not bring about the need for a fresh start in Europe's response to migration, it has shown how desperately we need one.

The new Pact on Migration and Asylum is a unique opportunity for the EU to turn the tide and stand up for values it has been founded upon - protecting those in need, and supporting human rights and human dignity in its cooperation with partner countries.

The IRC outlines its full recommendations in this report: A New Pact for a Europe that Truly Protects

Author bio

Imogen Sudbery is Brussels director of the International Rescue Committee. Birte Hald is the Brussels representative of the Danish Refugee Council.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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