UNHCR’s Global Trends report for 2016 reveals a record number of 65.6 million people forcibly displaced. How does that affect Europe?

First it is important to keep the proportions in perspective. The number of first time asylum applicants in Europe was 1.2 million last year representing a small fraction of the forcibly displaced. The vast majority are in their region or country of origin – in many cases the most unstable and poorest countries in the world.

Despite the comparatively small number of arrivals and its comparative wealth, Europe turned a manageable situation into a full-blown political crisis which may have a long-lasting damaging impact on the protection of human rights in member states, on internal European cohesion, and on the EU’s role in international affairs.

Who would have imagined that Europe would leave migrants at the mercy of random Libyan militias acting as coast guards or that it would allow its development assistance to be hijacked by a migrant control agenda, or that systematic detention, deportation and push-backs of people in need of protection would become the norm? These are truly disturbing developments and the worst is yet to come unless we continue to resist and propose alternatives.

EU has branded itself globally as a promoter of security and stability as well as a protector of fundamental human rights. How do see that role in light of current policies? 

There is no doubt that the European response to the global displacement crisis has damaged its ability to defend, inspire or impose the protection of human rights globally. On the practical level, the EU’s room for manoeuvre is reduced by agreements on migration control with third countries, and the power that they give to the counterparts who can hold Europe to ransom by threatening to let people leave, the agreement with Libya being one of the most problematic examples. On the political level, EU objections to human rights violations elsewhere are easily dismissed as hypocrisy in light of the situation in Europe. Second, Europe’s approach could legitimize harsh measures undertaken by the major refugee hosting countries – Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, Ethiopia, Lebanon or Turkey – who are already closing protection space.

However cynical our measures, including the deployment of armed border agencies or the military at European borders, they will not stop Europe from being part of the global community. Global approaches to forced displacement and to migration governance are desperately needed and they are only possible if Europe does its fair share.

What are the main alternatives to the current direction of EU and member states?

The EU and its member states could play a vital role in supporting global solutions to these global challenges. ECRE has put forward detailed and evidence-based alternatives to current policies covering, one, a fundamental reform of the asylum system in Europe, to create a fair and collective approach. Two: safe and legal channels to access protection. Three: global responsibility sharing. And finally inclusion of refugees in European societies. We also point out the need to battle the root causes of displacement. I am tempted to say that this is not rocket science: serious political engagement and funding and long-term humanitarian, development, peacebuilding and diplomatic efforts are needed in warzones like Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, as well as measures to prevent countries entering the same types of crisis – including by ending the policies and actions that generate conflict, corruption, repression and poverty and push people out of their homes. We are not alone in proposing these ideas and it is fair to say that the disease is diagnosed and the cure is known. The question is then simply whether European politicians will be part of the problem or part of the solution…  

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Picture: (cc)  Elisa Finocchiaro 2006