After several recent tragedies, an urgent debate on the situation facing migrants and refugees crossing the sea was held in the European Parliament late last month and was also on the agenda of the24-25 June EU summit.
Earlier in the month, the Parliament also hosted a high-level conference on asylum and migration.
Such events come as desperate refugees and migrants continue their attempts to reach Europe. In the first two months of 2021, an estimated 250 migrants died while crossing the Mediterranean.
Since 2016, there have been an estimated 14,200 deaths. Most migrants who have died trying to get to Europe have drowned. However, the deaths do not just occur at sea – but in detention blocks, asylum units and even town centres.
The latest debate on Europe’s asylum policy also comes after recent revelations appeared to show that the EU border Agency, Frontex, had coordinated with the Libyan Coast Guard to arrange illegal ‘pullbacks’; stopping refugees and migrants from crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.
The Libyan Coast Guard has been accused of multiple human rights violations. EU Member States have bickered bitterly on the issue since 2015, when over a million people, most of them Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan refugees, arrived on its shores, the majority through Greece.
The European Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, put forward last September, seeks to tackle the issue, but a final deal has yet to be reached. It aims to speed up processing at the bloc’s external borders and, instead of imposing quotas on Member States, will allow them to contribute in other ways to migration policy.
“Let us not leave Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain alone to manage the arrivals of migrants in the Mediterranean” Fabienne Keller MEP
Arrivals have dropped significantly, to about 95,000 people last year, according to United Nations data, most to Italy, Spain and Greece.
In April, asylum applications in Europe fell to their lowest level in ten years, as borders closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But many say this merely compounds the challenges of people fleeing conflict and persecution and that the latest deaths at sea are a cold, hard reminder that the current Common European Asylum System is not working while the new asylum pact has yet to become a reality.
Some of the parliament’s political groups, including RE and S&D, have called for the “reactivation” of the Malta Declaration, which dates to 2017 and focuses on measures to stem the flow of immigration to the EU.
RE MEP Fabienne Keller has written to five EU leaders, including Janez Janša, Prime Minister of Slovenia, the new holders of the EU Council presidency, who called “on Europe to show concrete solidarity right from this summer. Let us not leave Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain alone to manage the arrivals of migrants in the Mediterranean.”
During parliament’s asylum and migration debate, Sylvie Guillaume Socialist rapporteur on the own-initiative report on ‘New Avenues for Legal Labour Migration’ said, “I want to send a positive message about migration, focusing on its positive effects instead of getting lost in xenophobic rhetoric.”
“Migration is a demographic, economic and human reality that Europe needs, given its ageing population and the labour shortages in several key sectors,” The French deputy added, “We have to keep in mind that having less legal avenues for migration only leads to more illegal ways, and the only ones who benefit are the people smugglers.”
Leader of the centre-right EPP group Manfred Weber called for “real reform” of Europe’s migration and asylum policy, adding, “People traffickers are engaged in a lucrative and inhuman trade that victimises migrants and puts pressure on EU frontline countries receiving them. We want quick action to end the policy deadlock and swift measures to alleviate the current situation.”
“During the pandemic, entire economic sectors came to a halt due to the absence of immigrant workers. We need regulated immigration for the recovery of our societies and for the maintenance of our social protection systems” European Parliament President David Sassoli
In May, the Parliament’s Greens/EFA group tabled a policy paper laying out their “vision” for the future for asylum policy. The paper focuses on ensuring effective and efficient asylum procedures; protecting the right to seek asylum and ensuring “fair responsibility” sharing among Member States.
Their sorry plight comes at a time when new rules for the entry and residence of ‘highly skilled’ workers from outside the EU have just been agreed. The revised Blue Card Directive introduces rules for attracting such workers to the EU, including more flexible admission conditions, enhanced rights and the possibility to move and work between Member States more easily.
European Parliament president David Sassoli recently participated in a major inter-parliamentary conference on migration and asylum. The Italian member said, “During the pandemic, entire economic sectors came to a halt due to the absence of immigrant workers. We need regulated immigration for the recovery of our societies and for the maintenance of our social protection systems.”
The many sad stories of asylum seekers have been collated by the Dutch NGO United for Intercultural Action in a document called ‘The List’. It says the true number of asylum fatalities is likely to be far higher, as many thousands of people will have died without trace during sea and land journeys over the years.
And for those who get to Europe, the danger is not over. The List records more than 500 deaths in the asylum process, detention centres, prisons and camps. Some, such as Oumar Dansokho, killed themselves after failing to secure status in Europe.
The 25-year-old from Guinea first began the process of claiming asylum in 2008. He was finally denied in 2015 and set himself alight in the offices of the Belgian Asylum Agency.
All eyes now shift to the new Slovenian EU Council presidency to see if it can make any progress in preventing such tragedies during the second half of the year.