Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch, June 2015
Thomas Otto, former intern at the Marshall Center
Since the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers are now counted in the millions, the refugee crisis sits high on the European Union’s daily security agenda. The devastating situation along the southern Mediterranean shore has penetrated the EU’s island of relative prosperity. Therefore, political, economic and security consequences are discussed frequently. In “The Mediterranean Migration Crisis: Why People Flee, What the EU Should Do,” a June 2015 Human Rights Watch report, author Judith Sunderland offers a humanitarian perspective on the Mediterranean refugee crisis, demanding that the EU make this problem its top priority.
She starts by illustrating the environments most of the refugees flee from — namely Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, and the transit country Libya — which together accounted for over 60 percent of the refugees in the first half of 2015. The report contains interviews with newly arrived asylum seekers that graphically describe the factors pushing people from their countries: a civil war with indiscriminate killing in Syria, never-ending military conscription in Eritrea and anarchy in Somalia, along with personal stories of violence and persecution.
But a common theme runs through these stories: Push factors clearly outweigh pull factors. Almost unanimously, refugees say they would have preferred to stay in their home countries or neighboring countries, but simply couldn’t. A young Nigerian depicted his situation in Libya: “You see them [smugglers] pump up the [inflatable] boat, put one hundred people on it, and you know it’s risky. I wouldn’t have taken that risk except for the problems in Libya. I would have stayed in Libya, but every day it gets worse.”
Sunderland claims that, as of June 2015, the EU had done almost nothing to systematically address the humanitarian needs of the refugees. Instead, the EU’s countermeasures largely focused on “trying to prevent or discourage people attempting to make the dangerous crossing.” This resulted in downgrading Italy’s search and rescue mission, Operation Mare Nostrum, to the EU mission, Operation Triton, with only one-third of the previous budget and far fewer assets. The leadership of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, further confirms that the EU’s answer to the crisis might better be described as humanitarian protectionism.
Sunderland therefore demands several policy changes from the EU to treat refugees according to international law. Highlighted in the report is the 1951 Refugee Convention, which grants everyone the right to leave his or her country and seek asylum, as well as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which enshrines the “right to asylum.” To meet these legal obligations, not to mention moral ones, Sunderland investigates several policy areas and suggests potential improvements.
Improvements in budgeting and coordinating the search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean are the most urgent issues. The chief demand of the report is that the EU create methods for legal immigration to spare refugees the dangerous and expensive odyssey they undertake to embrace their legal right to apply for asylum. The EU should increase the number of humanitarian visas, improve family reunifications and deepen coordination with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to support U.N. resettlement programs.
Once the refugees reach the EU, the report stresses, it is the responsibility of member states to guarantee access to full and fair asylum procedures that follow commonly accepted EU law and to end the patchwork of current practices. Additionally, if the asylum application system fails, it is important to ensure an “effective remedy” that recognizes the harm some migrants face if forced to return home. The report also shines a spotlight on children, who need special protection and care.
The humanitarian perspective taken in this report makes it a valuable contribution to the current discussion, which is often too focused on the EU’s superficial political interests rather than on the refugees themselves. It explains the array of push factors in great detail, and thereby succeeds in adding a human element to the statistics.
The catalog of suggested policy improvements may, at first glance, seem difficult to adopt in the current political reality of factional infighting on every level. But at least it points the EU in the right direction. Policymakers should take note of these claims when making decisions. Otherwise, refugees could be trapped between the crises in their homelands and the EU’s defensiveness.