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A ‘to do list’ for the refugee crisis

Europe's World, 28/10/2015

Migration is the most controversial issue in Europe of this decade. It is creating new divisions between European countries and is feeding the widespread euroscepticism that far-right political movements have so promptly exploited.

The climax of these tensions, old and new, came when hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees had arrived in Europe to seek asylum. Many European governments proffered a mix of nationalist, religious and economic reasons to counter calls for greater solidarity in sharing the responsibility of the refugees. The European Commission’s proposal for modest mandatory quotas was nevertheless pushed through by qualified majority voting, and hopes are rising that EU countries have come to understand that go-it-alone migration policies would be a mistake of historic proportions. To save the whole integration project, European countries will have to work together on immigration in their common interest.

Renewed co-operation on immigration has to bring about reform of the legislation governing asylum. The so-called “Dublin system” leaves a few frontline southern EU countries to bear a disproportionate responsibility for asylum-seekers, and in any case it doesn’t conform with international human rights standards.

EU countries need to agree on a new system based on the principles of inter-state solidarity as well as on effective human rights protection. Legislation on humanitarian visas as well as on family reunifications should be eased to facilitate refugees’ safe passage to Europe. Carrier sanctions on transport companies should be abolished in order to reduce refugees’ dangerous and often deadly journeys by sea or land, and to counter the increasingly well-organised networks of people smugglers.

The EU also needs to boost search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean by mutualising efforts that so far have rested on the shoulders of a few countries, notably Italy. The increased resources and enlarged mandate given to Triton is a positive initiative that the EU must sustain in the long term.

EU countries have to team up not only to save lives but also to ensure common minimum reception standards across Europe. The European Council’s decision to help Greece, Turkey and Western Balkan countries strengthen their reception and asylum systems is a positive first step. It should now be extended to other EU countries, in particular in the Baltic and eastern regions, which often have sub-standard reception capacities and integration policies. Crucially, the EU should make more resources available to member states and their local authorities to help strengthen their capacity to integrate refugees.

Another key element is political discourse. Legislative and policy changes will hardly be possible if political leaders continue pandering to people’s fears and insecurities. Political leaders have to explain that refugees are people fleeing countries where civil wars, widespread violence or political repression leave no option other than to leave. The same leaders must promote examples of European tolerance, acceptance and solidarity. They must explain that Europe is not the problem, but the solution.

Achieving these goals demands much political determination. The EU and its member states should use the expertise we at the Council of Europe have built up and should also react more promptly to our recommendations and to the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. This would greatly improve the situation on the ground.

Nils Muižnieks