29th Mar 2023


Reforming migration requires tackling EU pride and prejudice

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So far, so predictable. As Europe re-opens for business, the tragic death of a three-month old infant at the squalid and over-crowded Ter Apel refugee centre in the Netherlands has sparked shock, horror and recrimination.

Dutch Premier Mark Rutte says he is "ashamed" and his "shocked" minister for migration affairs has launched an investigation into the baby's death and deplorable living conditions at the centre, a move also demanded by the European Commission.

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Reacting quickly to international criticism, the Dutch authorities have relocated many of the desperate asylum seekers to other parts of the Netherlands.

Much is — rightly — being made of the fact that Doctors Without Borders has sent in a team to assist with migrants' medical needs at the centre, the first time the humanitarian group is deploying staff in the country.

Don't hold your breath for any quick course correction. Some in the governing coalition want even stricter asylum rules and Rutte has warned that the problems are "not something that can be solved in a few weeks or months".

The Dutch premier is wrong. The EU's warm welcome of Ukrainian refugees is proof that the bloc can hammer out a quick and effective policy response for those fleeing war and violence — when it wants to.

But Rutte is also right: EU hospitality accorded to Ukrainians remains an exception to the rule.

Across the bloc, non-Ukrainian refugees continue to feel the brunt of the EU's inhumane rinse and repeat efforts to tackle demands for shelter and asylum.

More than 48,000 refugees and migrants have died while trying to get into Europe since 1993, according to United Against Refugee Deaths.

The causes of death are numerous: most drowned in the Mediterranean, others were shot at borders, killed by traffickers, committed suicide at the detentions centers out of desperation, depression, and anxiety, or were killed after being deported to their countries of origin.

They included babies, children, teenagers, (pregnant) women, and men and whole families.

Yet efforts at redesigning Fortress Europe — or even tinkering at some of its sharpest and deadliest edges — remain mired in endless arguments.

The jury is still out on whether attempts to rein in Frontex, the EU's border control agency, will succeed despite the findings of a year-long investigation by the EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF, which say the agency has covered up and even encouraged illegal pushbacks of asylum-seekers trying to enter Greece.

The resignation of Frontex director Fabrice Leggieri in the wake of the damning OLAF report may — or may not — lead to a change in the culture of an organisation which has so far acted as though border enforcement and human rights are "two competing principles".

Frontex is forging ahead, however, with new "operations" to stop irregular migration now underway in Senegal and Mauritania.

The agency has also recently deployed an unmanned surveillance aircraft, complete with thermal cameras and radars, in Greece as part of what critics say is a wider EU spending spree on technologies to track down and keep out refugees.

Those who live in fear of more so-called irregular entries into the bloc are certain to rally around even tougher measures.

The focus may be on numbers but make no mistake: behind the EU's "migration crisis" — with its relentless arguments over "solidarity", relocation, burden-sharing, integration and returns — lies a darker story of pride and prejudice.

EU discussions on migration are entangled in a toxic web of systemic racism and discrimination, rising anti-Muslim sentiments and Eurocentric attitudes nurtured and nourished during the slave trade and centuries of colonialism.

Valiant efforts at migration management reform are doomed to fail unless EU policymakers confront and dismantle divisive "us and them" conversations, instead of amplifying them.

Among other actions that means stronger enforcement of the EU's equality agenda and anti-racism action plan.

It also means getting tougher with Hungary's Viktor Orban whose latest xenophobic outburst against "mixed race" societies has agitated some and thrilled others on both sides of the Atlantic.

Chiding Orban is the easy bit.

Dark autumn ahead

More difficult and yet imperative is the need to counter white supremacist narratives which, whether by stealth or intention, are now part and parcel of EU-speak and national discourses.

Prepare for tougher days ahead. With European economies set to take a beating this autumn, the scapegoating of migrants, refugees and other "others" could get worse.

In France, the heavily-racist rhetoric that characterised several political campaigns during elections risks becoming a new normal.

Opinion polls in Sweden ahead of elections on 11 September show an increase in popularity of the hard-right Sweden Democrats party which admits to having a neo-Nazi past.

With her far-right Brothers of Italy party riding high in polls, Georgia Meloni could become Italy's next prime minister in elections on 25 September.

The EU is rightly proud of its warm reception of Ukrainian refugees. Yet death of an unnamed baby in an over-crowded Dutch refugee centre — like the heartbreaking image in 2015 of two-year old Alan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey — brings shame to all of Europe.

Crafting a sane EU migration management policy requires that the EU corrects its dismal record on race and discrimination and starts living up to its own values.

It must not — it cannot — continue to be déjà vu over and over again.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the editor of the EUobserver magazine.


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

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