EU Refugee Crisis: Human Rights Violations and Migrant Deaths Are Being Ignored

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28 Jun 2017
[International Secretariat]

As people around the globe marked World Refugee Day Tuesday the all too familiar news came that at least 120 people had drowned off the coast of Libya. Their deaths bring the total number of people who have died while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean to more than 1,800 since the start of the year.

Against this grim backdrop, European leaders are meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels to discuss migration. Each leader will no doubt lament these latest deaths. But despite their hand-wringing rhetoric, the focus of their discussion will not be the importance of saving lives. Instead it will be how to reduce the number of people arriving in Europe in the first place, by reinforcing cooperation with African countries to stem irregular migration.

This strategy not only exacerbates the disparity between developed and developing countries in the number of refugees they are taking in, but it also undermines any claim by the European Union to be a standard bearer for human rights.

Rather than offering refugees and migrants the chance to avoid irregular border crossings, by creating safe and legal routes for people to move to Europe and improving conditions in refugee camps, Europe has focused on increasing border controls and stepping up returns.

The currently preferred method for solving the migrant crisis seems to be “externalization.” This involves recruiting countries refugees and migrants come from or travel through to tighten border controls or to shift protection responsibilities to other countries.

So-called externalization policies increase the likelihood of human rights violations. This is particularly the case if measures to tighten border control are encouraged politically and facilitated technically in countries with problematic human rights records.

A shameful example of how this works in practice is Europe’s cooperation with Libya. European leaders have deepened cooperation with the Libyan coastguard, through training and even provision of boats, in the hope of stopping sea crossings, despite warnings that this would support and even fuel human rights violations. They are now looking at supporting Libyan border control capacity in the south of the country.

Also, as we have seen in multiple sea interceptions carried out over the past months, the Libyan coastguard disregards basic safety protocols and international standards, and has even opened fire during rescue operations at sea. Refugees and migrants are put at risk while the EU looks the other way. Meanwhile, the number of irregular crossings and deaths at sea continues to rise.

EU leaders have an opportunity to revert this course of action. At the very minimum, they should refrain from any form of cooperation that might leave refugees and migrants stranded in countries where they are exposed to human rights violations. They must monitor and address the human rights risks that may arise from current externalization policies.

But radical change is needed. As they review their external migration policies, European leaders must end their focus on the short-term objective of reducing crossings. Instead, a bold plan is needed to support human rights protection in countries of origin and transit and to make safe routes available to refugees and would-be migrants.

22 June 2017

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