International Migrants Day: A shrinking humanitarian space for migration work

Written by Denis Haveaux on 18 December 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Humanitarian organisations must be able to deliver unconditional support to migrants, wherever they are, argues Denis Haveaux.

As we come to the end of the year, we tend to reflect. We think back on the last 12 months and review the challenges we faced, our achievements, and the things that we could have done differently.

In particular, we were deeply concerned to witness a shrinking humanitarian space for principled action towards migrants within and outside the Union in 2017.

The EU and its Member States sustained their efforts to curtail irregular migration, with increasingly abrasive anti-smuggling policies and practices. Furthermore, their prioritisation of migration-management objectives in relationships with third countries at times risked compromising the neutrality principle, increasing exposure to potential instrumentalisation.


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Regrettably, the migration work of humanitarian actors was repeatedly challenged, negatively impacting our ability to access and assist migrants in need.

On International Migrants Day, the EU and its Member States should honour their humanitarian commitments by supporting civil society actors like National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to provide essential services to migrants, regardless of their location or status.

Allowing restrictions to the humanitarian space not only risks endangering the dignity and fundamental rights of migrants, but also threatens social cohesion within the Union.

This year, the implementation of the EU’s anti-smuggling measures had tragic consequences in the Mediterranean.

Supported by the EU institutions, the code of conduct imposed on NGO search and rescue missions, which made the presence of judicial police aboard ships mandatory, cornered humanitarian actors into choosing between saving lives and protecting their neutrality – the essence of humanitarian work.

"On International Migrants Day, the EU and its Member States should honour their humanitarian commitments by supporting civil society actors like National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to provide essential services to migrants, regardless of their location or status"

Seeing their scope for humanitarian action compromised, many decided to halt operations for fear of being falsely associated with the smuggling industry through their presence and work. Tragically, we now see the number of fatalities at sea rising once again.

In its external relations, we also saw the EU and Member States employ an ever-widening variety of tools to contribute to their migration-management objectives.

Many bilateral agreements and development funding mechanisms included reducing migratory pressures towards Europe among their key objectives. Indeed, current Council discussions around the establishment of a dedicated financial instrument to stem irregular migration as a priority in the next Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) are particularly troubling.

While humanitarian workers are increasingly called upon to respond to vulnerabilities along migratory routes, the humanitarian nature of their work is jeopardised by its potential instrumentalisation for political purposes.

If the migration work of humanitarian actors is perceived to contribute to political ends, we could lose the trust of those most in need of our support. It is therefore critical that EU development funding serves to address issues like poverty and the rule of law, and is not framed as part of a strategy to stop people from moving.  

"As we look towards the year ahead, we hope that the EU and its Member States will take decisive action to protect the humanitarian space for work with and for migrants in 2018"

Within the EU, we were also worried to note the rising number of citizens and humanitarian actors sanctioned for their solidarity towards migrants in transit. Often, their only wrong-doing consisted of demonstrating kindness and compassion by offering, food, clothing or shelter.

This type of criminalisation is a direct consequence of different national interpretations of the Facilitator’s package. We thus continue to urge that the EU clarifies the clause by explicitly excluding humanitarian assistance from the scope of the EU Facilitation Directive.

As we look towards the year ahead, we hope that the EU and its Member States will take decisive action to protect the humanitarian space for work with and for migrants in 2018.

Currently, the fundamental rights of migrants, many of whom are already in situations of extreme vulnerability, are increasingly undermined as they receive declining support. All migrants are protected under international law, and their legal status should not be a barrier to the basic protection of their life and dignity.

Humanitarian organisations must be able to deliver unconditional support to migrants wherever they are, be it in city centres or at borders.

About the author

Denis Haveaux is the Director of the Red Cross EU Office in Brussels

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