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Asylum seekers and migrants descend from a large fishing vessel used to transport them from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. October 11, 2015.  © 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

(Brussels) – European Union governments should take urgent action to bring Europe’s response to the refugee challenge, now a full blown EU crisis, in line with their legal responsibilities and stated values, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 16-page report, “Europe’s Refugee Crisis: An Agenda for Action,” analyzes the failings of the EU governments’ response to the crisis and sets out recommendations to improve Europe’s response across four broad areas: reducing the need for dangerous journeys; addressing the crisis at Europe’s borders; fixing the EU’s broken asylum system; and ensuring EU cooperation with other countries that improves refugee protection and respect for human rights.

“In a world of increasing displacement, conflict, and human rights abuse, EU leadership is more important than ever,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The horrific Paris attacks on November 13 underscore the need for an effective collective EU response to the refugee crisis that allows for orderly processing and proper screening for asylum seekers, including those fleeing ISIS violence in Syria and Iraq.”

Amnesty International also released on November 17, 2015, an important report, “Fear and Fences: Europe’s Response to Keeping Refugees at Bay,” on this issue, outlining similar concerns.

More than 800,000 asylum seekers and migrants have arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, with most traveling onward to northern and western EU countries. According to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, 84 percent were from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, or Iraq – all countries experiencing conflict, widespread violence and insecurity, or countries with highly repressive governments.

While the EU and its member states have stepped up search-and-rescue operations, more than 3,450 people have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe in 2015.

The response of many EU governments to the crisis has been deeply flawed. The response has been characterized by deaths at sea, chaos, and deplorable humanitarian conditions at sometimes-closed or blocked land borders, and inadequate responsibility sharing and collective action. Many EU countries have tried to deflect responsibility onto countries outside the European Union.

The European Union and its member countries should work collectively to:
  • Save lives at sea through robust search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea;

  • Reduce the need for dangerous journeys by increasing refugee resettlement, facilitating family reunification, and providing humanitarian visas;

  • Resolve the chaos at Europe’s borders through increased preparedness and coordination, swifter implementation of an agreed-upon emergency relocation scheme, and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures – including at the Greek and Bulgarian land borders with Turkey – and decent reception conditions throughout the region;

  • Fix the EU’s broken asylum system, and start by replacing the flawed Dublin system with a permanent mechanism for distributing asylum seekers equitably and enforcing EU standards across all member states;

  • Respect rights in migration cooperation with countries outside the EU by carefully designing, carrying out, and monitoring programs;

  • Put human rights at the center of diplomatic and other efforts to tackle root causes of refugee and migration flows.

The EU should also ensure that efforts to counter smuggling and human trafficking do not endanger lives, prevent people from seeking international protection, or return them to countries where they would face abuse.

“Drowning at sea or freezing in a Balkan field can never be acceptable forms of border control,” Sunderland said. “European governments should expand safe and legal channels, and ensure access to asylum and humane treatment at its borders and inside every single member state.”

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