Opinion: Europe Should Protect People, Not Borders
The mass deaths of refugees like those seen this weekend on the European Union's external borders is not a consequence of politicians looking away. We are in fact causing the problem with our Fortress Europe policies.
Workers at the Warsaw headquarters of Frontex, the European border protection agency, track every single irregular boat crossing and every vessel filled with refugees. Since December 2013, the authority has spent hundreds of millions of euros deploying drones and satellites to surveil the borders.
People have been perishing as they sought to flee to Europe for years now. They drown in the Mediterranean, bleed to death on the border fences of the Spanish North African conclaves of Ceuta and Melilla or freeze to death in the mountains between Hungary and Ukraine. But the European public still doesn't appear to be entirely aware of the dimensions of this humanitarian catastrophe. We have become accomplices to one of the biggest crimes to take place in European postwar history.
Barbarism in the Name of Europe
It's possible that 20 years from now, courts or historians will be addressing this dark chapter. When that happens, it won't just be politicians in Brussels, Berlin and Paris who come under pressure. We the people will also have to answer uncomfortable questions about what we did to try to stop this barbarism that was committed in all our names.
The mass deaths of refugees at Europe's external borders are no accidents -- they are the direct result of European Union policies. The German constitution and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights promise protection for people seeking flight from war or political persecution. But the EU member states have long been torpedoing this right. Those wishing to seek asylum in Europe must first reach European territory. But Europe's policy of shielding itself off from refugees is making that next to impossible. The EU has erected meters-high fences at its periphery, soldiers have been ordered to the borders and war ships are dispatched in order to keep refugees from reaching Europe.
For those seeking protection, regardless whether they come from Syria or Eritrea, there is no legal and safe way to get to Europe. Refugees are forced to travel into the EU as "illegal" immigrants, using dangerous and even fatal routes. Like the one across the Mediterranean.
A Darwinist situation has emerged on Europe's external borders. The only people who stand a chance of applying for asylum in Europe are those with enough money to pay the human-traffickers, those who are tenacious enough to try over and over again to scale fences made of steel and barbed wire. The poor, sick, elderly, families or children are largely left to their fates. The European asylum system itself is perverting the right to asylum.
EU Policies Are Causing Refugee Crisis
There is widespread dismay in Europe over the latest ship sinking last weekend -- an incident in which more than 650 people died off the coast of Libya on their way to Italy, the greatest number in such an incident yet. Once again, people are saying that a tragedy like this cannot be allowed to be repeated. But the same words were uttered following the disaster off the coast of Lampedusa in autumn 2013 and off the coast of Malta last September. On Monday, just hours after the latest incident, history threatened to repeat itself, with hundreds of people aboard a refugee ship in the Mediterranean in distress.
The leaders of the EU member states and their interior ministers can no longer be allowed to continue to get away with the status quo. The EU must move immediately to create legal ways for refugees to reach Europe. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), human rights organizations like Germany's Pro Asyl and Human Rights Watch have long pointed out ways in which this might be done.
- The Italian Navy's Operation Mare Nostrum rescue mission, which protected hundreds of thousands of refugees from drowning, needs to be resumed without delay. The Italian government suspended the program due to a lack of funding. And Frontex's own Operation Triton, whose aim is to parry migrants, should be eliminated.
- The EU should create asylum procedures at the embassies of its member states in the same way Switzerland has done. This would mean that in the future, refugees could apply for asylum at the embassies of EU member states outside of Europe. This would spare them the potentially deadly path across the borders.
- The EU also needs to finally begin participating seriously in the UNHCR resettlement program. For years now, the UN has been helping bring refugees from acute crisis areas for a limited period of time to secure states without subjecting them to bureaucratic asylum procedures. UNHCR is currently seeking guest countries for several hundred thousand refugees who need to be resettled. In 2013, North America took in more than 9,000, but Germany only accepted 300.
- The visa requirement for people from countries in crisis like Syria or Eritrea should also be temporarily lifted. That would allow asylum-seekers to request admission at European border control posts without being given blanket rejection by police. The EU's Dublin Regulation, which only allows refugees to apply for asylum in their country of arrival, also needs to be eliminated. Instead, asylum-seekers should be distributed among EU countries through a quota system. The freedom of movement that has long applied to EU citizens should then also be extended to recognized refugees.
- People fleeing their home country largely for economic reasons rather than political persecution, should be given the possibility of labor migration -- through the creation of a Green Card for immigrants from poorer countries, for example.
These reforms wouldn't suddenly eliminate irregular migration, but they would help to reduce the suffering. Contrary to what European leaders and interior ministers claim, deaths at Europe's borders can be prevented. At the very least, their numbers could be dramatically reduced. But that requires a readiness on the part of Europeans to protect people and not just borders.
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