Thursday

19th May 2022

Opinion

Fortress Europe should lower drawbridge — for all

  • This was the welcome that awaited migrants on the Polish border from Belarus, back in November 2021 - just four months ago (Photo: Telegram)
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There is much to admire in EU leaders' quick, robust and hopefully effective response to Moscow's war against Ukraine.

Also impressive is the warm EU welcome extended to an estimated 500,000 Ukrainians who have fled the fighting to seek shelter in neighbouring states.

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  • 'It's very simple: if left unchallenged, the EU's hostile migration and refugee policies will continue to undermine the EU's much-needed geopolitical authority and influence'

Lowering the drawbridge to Fortress Europe means the refugees can get urgent help, a temporary home and the hope they need to survive in desperate times.

It is also in keeping with the EU's commitments to international conventions.

The EU's geopolitical resolve and the generous humanitarian response are laudable and prove the bloc's ability to respond to crises, whether military or humanitarian.

But they risk being undermined by persistent Eurocentric policy responses, irresponsible European politicians, offensive West-centric media reporting and incidents of racial discrimination at EU borders.

Sadly, important damage has already been done.

Racist statements by European politicians have already shocked and hurt many, and they have reinforced perceptions of Europe as inherently wedded to bigoted, Eurocentric and Orientalist narratives.

Petkov says the quiet bit out loud

The prize for the most unsavoury — but ultimately most revealing — comment probably goes to Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov for his meticulous distinction between "intelligent and educated" European refugees and others who are part of a wave of people with "unclear pasts who could have been terrorists."

Petkov's crude distinction has not been denounced by any of his counterparts, perhaps because he is only saying out loud what many have shown through their actions.

Poland and Hungary have been as impressive in their embrace of Ukrainian refugees as they were in the rejection of those who were fleeing the Syrian and Afghan killing fields.

It is their persistently hardline stance (with tacit help behind the scenes, such as from the Slovaks) that did so much to undermine any attempt to overhaul EU migration policy.

Although apologies have been made, European and US media have rubbed salt into the wound with their constant breathless and clueless reporting.

Early reports of discrimination against Africans and Asians at EU borders have added fuel to the fire.

Yes, Europe's reputation has taken another beating – but all need not be lost. The EU's generosity and openness to refugees from Ukraine is understandable and must continue.

Proximity matters as do good relations between neighbours. But racism must and should be called out. As such, EU governments need to reflect seriously and urgently on charges of racism and double standards.

As a start, EU policymakers must acknowledge that the EU's so-called migration crisis has never been about numbers. Pride and prejudice are the real obstacles standing in the way of a well-managed EU policy on migration.

The EU debate on migration and refugees is entangled in in Europe's dismal record on racism, the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and the continent's complex post-colonial relations with its southern, especially African, neighbours.

This makes it even more imperative that the EU takes action to tackle systemic and institutional racism and not just treat the problem as one created by nasty bigots on the far right.

Three steps forward

It also requires an effort — however uphill — to make the EU's migration policy less Eurocentric, less discriminatory and more consistent.

EU policymakers should focus on three ways forward.

First, it is imperative that EU countries continue to keep their borders open in the difficult days ahead. This must apply to Ukrainians and others in the country.

Plans to allow Ukrainians to stay for longer by using a so-called Temporary Protection Directive, an EU law set up in the aftermath of the Yugoslav war, may need to be drawn up to include all people fleeing Ukraine.

Second, refugees — whatever their ethnicity — must be provided with proper reception facilities, food and shelter. There must be no discrimination.

The EU must ensure that its empathy for Ukrainian refugees is shared with others fleeing equally brutal wars and conflict.

Since displacement often has an especially adverse impact on women and girls, especially those travelling alone, women refugees must receive special care and attention.

Third, the EU must not let this moment pass.

Europeans have short attention spans. When over a million people crossed into Europe in 2015, support for refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan was much greater.

But the warm welcome soon ended after EU nations disagreed over how to share responsibility. Since then, governments across Europe have been toughening their migration and asylum policies.

Finally, although the two may appear disconnected, the recent EU-African summit should have demonstrated to EU policymakers that internal EU policies have a strong external connection.

It's very simple: if left unchallenged, the EU's hostile migration and refugee policies will continue to undermine the EU's much-needed geopolitical authority and influence.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an EUobserver columnist and magazine editor, and EU analyst who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.

Disclaimer

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

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