Parliament debates migration and human rights

A joint debate in the European Parliament welcomed commissioners, foreign delegates and NGOs to discuss on the ongoing migration crisis.

By Erik Tate

16 Sep 2015

Elmar Brok (EPP, DE), Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, noted that they were meeting at a moment of great political significance, something which could even be called a catastrophe. This needs to be approached from every angle by the Parliament, he said, and also they could also discuss what happened in the Council the previous night. The current situation has caused a great deal of human suffering as people have been forced to leave their homes and onto the roads, on which there are now seven million people escaping war and persecution. It seems that these people do not have any great prospects for the future right now.

This is one of the classic inter-committee topics, he continued. They cannot simply say that the LIBE Committee should only be dealing with the consequences of foreign policy while the AFET Committee should only focus on the causes. They need a unified response which is both credible and respects human rights. This includes a discussion on distribution keys, which so far represent a drop in the ocean. Since Monday there is also a legislative procedure underway on relocation, so on this, the Parliament can moved forward and make a contribution; there needs to be democratic decision-making between the Parliament and the Council on an equal footing, he said.

They will also be discussing safe third countries and how to speed up procedures, but also about the temporary suspension of Schengen. There have to be measures to combat human smuggling, and they should also talk about the issues of registration and asylum procedures. They have to find some way to overcome the disorganised approach that can be seen today, he said. On the issue of hotspots, he added that more resources need to be made available from the EU and its Member States to these hotspots to work, also potentially beyond the EU’s borders.

Mr Brok said that they also need to talk about the responsibilities of different countries, hoping that the UN would seize the opportunity to get the EU, US and Russia to adopt a common position. Some countries are currently fighting a proxy war in the region and these countries need to be on board; states should also not be using the alibi of religion to carry out a proxy war between regional powers. There needs to be a common effort, he said, and stressed that Russia should be part of this concept. The Arab states also need to take more responsibility.

There are camps around Syria and Iraq which are symmetrically underfinanced, he continued, and this year the World Food Programme has been reduced by 40%. This means that people are not being properly looked after and not even getting enough food. The EU is ready to do considerably more for humanitarian reasons, but Member States’ budgetary plans for international relations with third countries are being seriously cut. Perhaps this will be reconsidered given the scale of the current crisis, as they must respond to the urgent need faced by these people.

However, these discussions should not descend into a blame game; they should only focus on how this problem can be solved. There are different traditions and experiences in the Member States, and they should be trying to get everyone onto a single boat. This debate is important to finally get the ball rolling.

 

Claude Moraes (S&D, UK), Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, said that the meeting could not have been more perfectly timed in terms of the crisis that they are facing and the Council meeting on Monday evening. It is a positive thing that they have unified all of these committees, even if the results of the Council were disappointing. He thanked LIBE members for their work on the asylum system, which if the Member States had contributed more towards, they would be closer to resolving the crisis today. He said that for the LIBE Committee it is important that they have a legislative role on relocation and on the asylum system, as they should not be spectators in this process.

He noted aspects from the Council discussion on Monday, adding that if there a no political agreement on the Commission’s proposals then the European Union will lose credibility. Indeed, the LIBE Committee is very concerned that if this work is not accepted at this stage they will lose huge credibility. There also needs to be progress on the permanent procedure for relocation and to have some say in this, as the current crisis is not just a problem for today but also for tomorrow.

Mr Moraes concluded that he hoped to holistically work with AFET Committee to ensure that they make a difference. All external actors should be able to see the Parliament’s role as important, which represents citizens and is calling for this crisis to be resolved.

 

Federica Mogherini, Vice-President of the European Commission/ High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that this debate is extremely appropriate, useful and timely. She explained that the EU’s external and internal actions are not separate things, but rather two parts of the same policy. It is important to understand that the lack of unity internally has an impact on the EU’s credibility externally and subsequently its impact externally. She added that it is united on the external action on refugees but that the same level of unity is also need on policies within the European Union.

She said that this is currently perceived as a European crisis, but it is also a regional crisis. This has recently come to Europe but has already been affecting countries closer to the crises. It is not something new and not something only European, she continued, but rather something that is regional and global. They also have to remember that they are talking about the equivalent of 0.1% of the European population in this discussion on refugees, whereas Lebanon is currently dealing with them constituting 25% of its population. This has to be kept in mind when thinking who and what they are facing.

Whether this is defined as migration or a refugee crisis is important: they have to pass the right message to the public, that they are neither dealing purely with refugees or purely economic migrants. It is a mixed flow of people. This gives Europe certain responsibilities from a legal, moral and political point of view, which is a continent still perceived in the world as the champion of human rights. However, this relies on how these are applied on own territory, she said.

Ms Mogherini noted that in her hearings she said that she would be dealing with migration, which seemed slightly unexpected at the time, but foreign affairs ministers have started to put migration on the agenda since springtime. Since then they have not stopped working on this issue, she said. These actions need to be substantial and coherent with other actions.

Working united in Europe means first working with our partners, she continued, including international organisations and first of all UNHCR. She has started meeting the Sahel countries and will soon be visiting Niger to see the situation on the ground and discuss with both local and national authorities on the best possible measures. An intensive dialogue has also been started with the African Union on the ways to work better in the long term, which includes economic investments to solve one of the main route causes, which is poverty. High-level dialogues have been started, and there are EU liaison officers in key delegations. Despite a request in the Presidency conclusions to increase the level of support to the UNHCR this is still not enough, as they should rather target the contribution of 2014.

She then discussed two trust funds that have been established, starting with the one in Syria designed to identify projects and investing €4 billion. The Presidency conclusions from the Council meeting said that there was agreed to “significantly” increase support for neighbouring countries. The European Union has invested €41 million and it is then open to the Member States, but only Germany (€5 million) and Italy (€3 million) have contributed. She was very glad that Member States had agreed to significantly increase the fund and hoped that they would take the appropriate decisions.

The Commission has also proposed the creation of an Africa trust fund of €1.8 billion, and is now waiting for Member States to give consistent and significant contributions to this fund, and expects this not next year but tomorrow. She has sent a letter to all ministers inviting them to contribute, and is expecting contributions in the next hours, not the next months.

Another element they are working on is partnerships with countries of origin. A lot of emphasis is being place on returns, but this only applies for certain nationalities and for certain flows. This does not apply for people coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. All measures will be taken with full respect of non-refoulement, which is a legal, political and moral obligation. While working on return, however, they have to take into consideration that for countries of transit the situation is much more complicated, and many of these become host countries as a result. They should explore what can be done with the IOM and UNHCR to manage the flows in a sustainable way, and have to be very careful when acting with other countries not to put an extra burden on their shoulders.

Common work on combating traffickers and smugglers is also important, which legal channels being the best way of fighting traffickers – this is pure fact of reality. While creating the consensus for the legal migration they have started working with countries of transit to deal with traffickers, who are exploiting the desperation of people in a dramatic way. The things you hear from people taking these routes are tales of slavery. When a moth bets her life and the lives of her children on moving, this shows the magnitude of the desperation and there should be no illusions that this can be stopped with a fence or a wall.

As a result, they have launched a CSDP operation in the Mediterranean – EUNAVFOR Med. The operation has now been active for five weeks and saved 1 500 lives at sea, while gathering relevant information on the system in which the smugglers and traffickers operate. There is the necessary consensus in the Council to move forward on this. However, this does not mean bombing the boats but stopping and arresting the traffickers, seizing the assets and the boats, and making it more difficult for them. This will not stop or solve the problem at once, but is a significant part of the overall strategy.

Ms Mogherini then noted the role that climate change and natural disasters could play in generating huge flows of people. In resolving the crisis, she said that work in currently focusing on Libya, where it is hoped that an agreement could be possible very soon. The opportunity opened up by the Iran deal could also help in building a framework of cooperation rather than competition. In the civil war in Syria there needs to be a political way out, she added.

To conclude, she reminded that the Commission proposals have to be put into perspective: they are talking about the relocation of 160 000 people when a total of 12 million Syrians have been displaced.

 

Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, started his presentation by saying that Europe is now being confronted by migratory pressures, and that until recently there was no migratory policy. Yet in only a short period of time the Commission has been able to present the European Agenda on Migration and proposals since then. He wanted to express his gratitude to the European Parliament for being supportive of these developments from the very beginning.

However, adopting the policy has not solved the problem as the European neighbourhood is on fire and the situation is expected to continue in the foreseeable future. This problem is not about money and figures, he said, but about human dignity, respect of human beings, and the values and principles that Europe has been built on. The response to the refugee crisis will define our history as Europeans, as this is a crash test for Europe and our values.

He said that he was well aware of the specific attention that the Parliament has paid to respecting migrants’ fundamental rights including, in particular, to the right to asylum. Many heated political debates in the European Council has allowed there to be progress, he explained, even though these are very different at the national level in many Member States. Yet there remain differences in the Council, showing the ways in which Europe does, or rather does not, work. He said that he was disappointed by the outcome of the Council meeting, in which he expected more support from all of the Member States, although the majority was very helpful. While there were some results, some were thinking in a strictly national rather than European way. He said that he is determined to turn this crisis into an opportunity to revive the European dream. The whole world is watching and expecting Europe to move ahead in a bold way and deliver, and it now time for each and every one to take their responsibilities.

Yet there has been progress since last year as over 110 000 people have been saved through the strengthened Triton and Poseidon operations, showing that results are possible when we act in a united an coordinated way. The first hotspots are also being set up and will become operational shortly – an operational meeting will be organised this week following the formal adoption of the Council Decision.

To ensure that the right to asylum is fully respected across the European Union, the Commission has put forward a new proposal for relocation calling for 160 000 in need of international protection to be relocated. Priority will also be given to particularly vulnerable applicants, as stated in the draft Council Decision. On top of this, the Commission is proposing a permanent relocation mechanism, so that the right to asylum can be enforced more quickly in future crises – the Parliament’s opinion can act as a powerful signal sent to the Member States in this regard, he said. This time, the Parliament will be fully involved in the negotiations as co-legislator.

The EU list of Safe Countries of Origin will also alleviate the pressure on Member States’ national asylum systems by helping them focus on the applicants that are genuinely in need of international protection. However, applications will continue to be assessed on an individual basis, he stressed, but will be fast-tracked if individual assessments confirm that somebody has no right to asylum. They must take all the necessary measures to ensure the return of those with no right to stay, as only this way can they keep public support. The action plan on return outlines the short- and mid-term elements to be taken in full respect of all human rights standards, in particular the principle of non-refoulement.

Mr Avramopoulos added that many challenges rely on actions with third countries, which means a stronger link between the EU’s internal and external policies.

Although he explained that he was not particularly happy at the end of the Council meeting, ministers of the interior offered their support to the September package. There was also a clear willingness from the majority of Member States to relocate another 120,000 people in clear need of international protection. The Council has also decided to significantly and immediately increase the EU's financial support to Syria and its neighboring countries. However, more ambition is needed to respond to the magnitude being faced today. They did not get the deal they wanted, he said, but they will go back and try again.

The Commissioner concluded by saying that more has to be done in the future, but this has to be done together. This issue is related to the future of Europe: if we fail it will not be the institutions that will fail, he said, but Europe that fails.

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