The Pact on Migration and Asylum presented by the EU commission in 2020 focuses on deterrence, isolation, a toughening of the European border, and the fast-tracking of decisions at the expense of asylum seekers’ rights. New steps are now being taken by the European Parliament and the Swedish Presidency of the EU Council. Where is Europe heading?
The debate on European asylum and migration policy is dominated by barbed wire, cooperation with dubious regimes, isolationism, an obsession with deporting people, and even talk of erecting walls at the European border. Europe stands at the threshold of a new era, one in which the right to asylum has almost no practical significance any longer. But we cannot allow this. How we deal with asylum and migration is not a minor issue. On the contrary, it reflects our ways of living together and practicing democracy on our continent.
In September 2020, the EU Commission presented the Pact on Migration and Asylum as a ‘new beginning’ for migration and asylum policy in the European Union. The pact pays lip service to the idea of a fresh start in European migration policy, but in fact reinforces previous failed policies by focusing on deterrence, isolation, a toughening of the European border, and the fast-tracking of decisions at the border at the expense of asylum seekers’ right to fair procedures that take account of their individual circumstances. The proposal, which focuses heavily on repatriation, will undoubtedly lead to more incidents of extreme violence in non-EU countries, at the EU’s external borders, and on EU territory, to the detriment of those seeking to exercise their right to asylum in Europe. Besides far-right political movements, security companies stand to benefit the most from the consolidation of this policy: from the construction companies that build fences, to the maritime and defence companies that provide ships, aircraft, helicopters, and drones, to the security companies tasked with developing biometric systems both within and outside the EU.
A glimmer of hope remained, however, that the EU Parliament, as it did in the preceding legislative period, would take a stance that reversed the logic of the Commission’s proposal and instead put forward a migration policy based on principles of solidarity and providing for a compulsory allocation of individuals across all member states. But these hopes were dashed: in March 2023, the EU-Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs voted on its position on the migration pact, and its recommendations are far from progressive. The proposals are currently being discussed between the member states, and the Swedish presidency of the Council aims to reach an agreement at the EU Council meeting of Ministers of the Interior on 8 June 2023. The pressure is on to reach an agreement with the European Parliament within this legislative term, that is, before the European elections in spring 2024.
While Europe debates a ‘new’ asylum and immigration policy, people continue to die at our borders every day. More people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in the period from January to March 2023 than in the same period of any of the past six years: 441 deaths, with even more reported as missing. A recent study shows that in 2022 at least 225,533 pushbacks occurred at the European border. That amounts to approximately 617 per day, highlighting the extent to which European member states employ illegal practices to deny people access to the right to asylum.
Even efforts by civil society to support migrants and document the brutal violations of the law being committed by member states are increasingly subject to criminalisation, just like the refugees themselves. Efforts to raise awareness are effectively blocked. I experienced this myself when we travelled to Melilla in September 2022. On 24 June 2022, more than 23 people seeking protection died there and at least 76 were seriously injured while trying to cross from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Melilla. When we tried to reach the Moroccan side to continue our awareness-raising efforts there, the Moroccan authorities refused us entry. Morocco is the second largest recipient of EU funds related to migration, receiving a total of 500 million euros from a recent EU budget.
Another particularly alarming example can be seen in Greece. During an official committee trip to the island of Samos, among other places, people arriving by boat from Turkey were methodically hunted down by the Greek border police working together with black-masked henchmen. Lawyers and aid organisations were accused of cooperating with smugglers to engage in criminal activity. The Greek interior minister, a far-right politician, even asked me if I was colluding with smugglers. More and more, rescuing people is being reframed as a criminal offence.
Europe’s borders are killing people, while those working in European asylum and migration policy are becoming increasingly desensitised to this fact. A policy that operates with dubious methods and cooperates with undemocratic countries outside the EU, while tolerating and covering up human rights violations through its border protection agency, Frontex. All to make it harder for refugees to enter the country or, better still, prevent them from entering altogether. A policy that leaves asylum seekers to rot in camps at the European border. European migration policy has only one goal: to gradually undermine the universal human right to asylum. It has forgotten the fact that this right was a lesson learned from the brutal persecution of millions of people by German fascism. Many were unable to find asylum anywhere, and the aim was to put to an end to that once and for all. But what is happening now? Where is Europe heading?
For our own sake, we must defend the right to asylum with all our might. Those who undermine this right make people fair game for malicious actors. How we handle asylum and migration is not a marginal issue; it speaks to how we want to live on this continent and the principles that should guide our coexistence. This issue is therefore at the core of democracy.
Alliances must be forged with those who advocate for a different European Union. An EU that lives up to the spirit of Altiero Spinelli, the communist who, as a prisoner in Ventotene, developed the venerable idea of a United States of Europe, a Europe of humanity and solidarity.
An EU that returns to its democratic, humanist values and puts an end, once and for all, to policies that violate human rights and seal Europe off. If we do not act now, the right to asylum in Europe could indeed become a matter of history.
Translated by Marc Hiatt & Juan Diego Otero for Gegensatz Translation Collective.