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My twitter feed on Monday was full of the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean. At least 17 people died when an overcrowded boat sank on the crossing from Libya to Italy, with many more still unaccounted for. We don’t know their names or their stories. They join the grim toll of perhaps 20,000 people over the last decade whose lives have ended trying to reach Europe for protection or a better life.

With each fresh tragedy, come the statements of sympathy, of anguish and anger from European policymakers of all stripes. We hear promises of tougher action against smugglers, diplomatic pressure and ‘technical support’ to North African countries, calls for managed migration, and efforts to address ‘push factors’ through aid.

But after working on migration issues in Europe for more than a decade, I have come to the realization that our leaders ultimately care little about lives lost at sea, about respecting the rights that migrants (and the rest of us) have, and about making sure that those who need protection get it.

Take a look at Europe’s approach to migration as a whole—from the halls of Brussels, Berlin, London, and Paris, along razor-wire fences in the Spanish enclaves in North Africa, on the Turkish and Ukrainian borders, in Libya and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Europe’s stance offers what MSF founder Rony Brauman once referred to as “the spectacle of compassion.” A superficial adherence to European values concerning respect for rights, access to asylum, and humane treatment, masks a brutal reality driven by base politics—with European voters apparently willing to set aside humanity if it offers the faintest chance of keeping out migrants and asylum seekers.

Of course there are exceptions. With its conscience pricked by the deaths of more than 360 migrants near the island of Lampedusa (deaths that Pope Francis called “a disgrace”), the Italian Navy has begun a massive rescue operation Mare Nostrum that is saving thousands of lives. It is criticized in some quarters as a “pull factor,” presumably because it removes death by drowning as a deterrent. And the European Commission has used its money and political clout to try to fix Greece’s broken asylum system, with some success, although abusive and prolonged detention remains the norm there.

But the basic philosophy of EU migration policy can be expressed simply: to keep them out, make life as unpleasant as possible for those who do arrive, get rid of them quickly if you can, and if you can’t, then detain them for as long as possible. 

In Bulgaria, Human Rights Watch just published a report documenting “pushbacks”—summary returns, in some cases violent—of migrants and refugees, including Syrians, to Turkey. In Greece, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Pro Asyl, and UNHCR have uncovered similar abuses by the Greek authorities in the Aegean Sea. Greece built a fence, which EU border guards help to patrol, making its land border with Turkey much harder to cross. Bulgaria is building a similar fence. Turkey is hosting more than three quarters of a million refugees from Syria, while EU governments quibble over resettling a few thousand.

The EU’s approach exploits what is effectively a loophole in international law. Once a person is on a state’s territory, it has to consider any claim for asylum they make and can’t remove them if it would expose the person to the risk of torture or other serious rights abuse. But if the person never reaches the state’s territory, the legal obligations under refugee and human rights law are never triggered.

Australia led the way, with its ‘Pacific Solution’ in 2001 designed to prevent asylum seekers from reaching its mainland. It went so far as to designate parts of its territory as outside Australia to make the scheme work.

The EU quickly cottoned on and ‘externalization’ has been a central plank of EU migration and asylum policy ever since.

That is why the EU trades visa-free travel with neighbouring countries for agreements requiring them to take back not only their own nationals but people from other countries who happened to have passed through there en route to the EU. It’s why EU border guards are stationed on Greece and Bulgaria’s borders with Turkey, and carry out joint sea patrols over the coast of West Africa and why the EU trains the Libyan coastguard, which intercepts boats leaving Libya.

It’s why new EU rules about rescues at sea allow EU patrols to turn vessels back in international waters. If a boat is intercepted, these patrols are allowed to decide on the spot if anyone needs protection, and stop anyone deemed not to from reaching EU waters.

True, the right to asylum is enshrined in the EU charter. Yes, the EU is building a common European asylum system. And yes, all EU governments are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is supposed to prevent returns to torture and ill-treatment. But if the EU can just stop people from ever getting here, those standards can simply be ignored.  

As I sat in meetings in Brussels last week, the logic of this system finally became clear to me—the EU will work to address flaws in the domestic asylum systems so that they meet the common standard. It is admittedly a low bar, which allows extended detention and fast-track procedures, among other problems. But at the same time it is doing all it can to make sure that as few people as possible can ever make use of them.

Tough action on Greece so that asylum seekers can be sent back there from other EU states? Yes. Tough action on Bulgaria for blocking entry to the EU? Don’t hold your breath. 

If European leaders truly care about the deaths of migrants, they should have the courage to explain to voters why our common humanity requires policies that respect rights, and work to make Italy’s rescue operation the norm of EU policy responses rather than an exception.

Benjamin Ward is deputy director in the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

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