Navigating new waters: why the EU’s new migration pact has to change the tide

7 September 2020 Louisa Waugh Navigating new waters: why the EU’s new migration pact has to change the tide

The European Commission (EC) is set to release a new migration and asylum pact: but the sight of refugees and migrants stranded on lifeboats in the Mediterranean, and systematic abuses in Libyan detention centres, show the horrifying failures of current European Union (EU) migration policies. Louisa Waugh asks whether the new pact will embody the fundamental EU values of respect for human dignity and rights, freedom, equality and the rule of law?  

The Mediterranean Strait between the coasts of Libya, Malta and Italy is one of the most dangerous sea crossings in the world: at least 300 women, men and children have drowned attempting the crossing since the start of 2020. Even those lucky enough to be rescued at sea are far from safe. Hundreds of people have been stranded aboard dangerously overcrowded volunteer rescue boats that have been forbidden to disembark in European ports, effectively holding their passengers hostage to EU migration policy.

This included survivors from a flimsy vessel that recently exploded, killing 45 people, while others survived with horrific burns. Italy and Malta refused rescue boats to land. Both states, along with Greece, are aggrieved at other member states for not hosting their share of refugees and migrants, and have instead used anti-smuggling laws to prosecute volunteers operating these rescue boats.

The EU’s new migration pact is an opportunity to change the current narrative on migration that, since 2015, has become increasingly hardline, intolerant and in some countries blatantly xenophobic. Many EU member states have adopted aggressive approaches to migrants and asylum seekers, managing migration primarily as a security threat rather than a human rights issue. A new EC action plan on anti-racism is an opportunity to focus more attention on how racism feeds into these toxic security-focused narratives.

The EU has effectively externalised many of its border controls, meaning it has transferred migration oversight to countries just beyond its borders to keep non-Europeans out. Management of migration has been outsourced, often to third-party security forces as well as the EU border and coastguard agency, FRONTEX. Between them, these operations effectively contain migration by constricting available routes – leaving many with no choice except resorting to more dangerous routes – and detaining so-called “irregular migrant flows” en masse. This is especially the case in Libya and the Sahel.

Meanwhile, the EU’s new naval mission patrolling the straits between Libya and Italy – dubbed IRINI (meaning peace in Greek) – aims to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya but has no rescue component to its mission and was specifically designed to avoid search and rescue responsibilities. If it does encounter “migrant flows” in distress at sea it will not publically disclose what happens to those it is obliged to save under international agreements.

The rhetoric accompanying these policies spells out how dehumanising, and sometimes racialised, they have become. Saferworld has highlighted how this ‘externalisation’ of migration management has directly contributed to widespread abuses of migrants and refugees. At the same time this approach has systematically failed to recognise and address the complex reasons people migrate, and are forced to flee their homes, especially due to violent conflicts that destroy economies and communities.

This incoherence between fundamental EU values, migration policy and contextual realities highlights the need for a fresh approach to migration, and the need for robust debate on racism and anti-racism to be incorporated into the negotiations with member states. There’s a real opportunity for this new pact to live up to its stated aim of delivering a more humane and effective system.

The draft agreement will “seek a whole of route approach … [acknowledging] that the internal and external are inextricably linked”. This includes relocation policies that share responsibility for migrants and refugees across member states more equitably. The infamous Dublin regulation that EU officials admit is now “toxic,” including the Common European Asylum System that has been effectively paralysed since 2015, needs reform. The stakes are high: the pact will have to be negotiated and agreed by all member states, including those with overt anti-migration policies and rhetoric, such as Italy, Hungary and Poland. For the EU to live up to its fundamental values, it needs to confront its own racism, and encourage people with influence, like Members of the European Parliament and political parties, to speak against racist migration narratives.

Regarding policy changes, establishing, and monitoring, humanitarian ‘corridors’ for migrants and refugees is one strategy Saferworld has advocated. This needs to be accompanied by a comprehensive independent assessment of the impact of EU external migration polices, with specific attention to impacts on women and children, to ensure the same mistakes are not rolled out under the new pact. Meaningful consultation, to identify the drivers of forced displacement, with communities in countries of origin and transit during these negotiations could work towards this pact being more of a win-win for different parties and interests.

The EU’s approach to migration has had huge impacts on the safety, rights and livelihoods of thousands of people beyond Europe’s borders. What often gets forgotten in current toxic migration narratives is the positive contribution migrants and refugees make to host countries, including economically. The majority of global migration is actually regional: more than 75 percent of migration in sub-Saharan Africa is within the continent; and nine out of ten refugees are hosted by low and middle income countries outside the EU.

The current stand-off in the Mediterranean has just shifted: Sicily has now agreed to take in several hundred migrants and refugees, who can now disembark. But many others remained stranded at sea, some for weeks. Meanwhile in Libya, almost half a million people face abuse, torture and extortion, while children are detained in horrific conditions. With reports of deaths from medical negligence and torture, attacks by militias and chronic uncertainty are leading individuals to burn themselves alive.

These realities encapsulate why the EU urgently needs a more humane and accountable approach to migration. One that treats refugees and migrants with dignity and respect, and identifies and develops political solutions that address the insecurity that forces many from their homes.

As people around the world continue to rise up in protest against discrimination and racism, we need to ask hard questions about how Europe treats migrants and refugees: would this approach be allowed to continue if these migrants and refugees were all white?


Photo: Syrian women and girls in an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. (Credit: Russell Watkins/DFID).