(Brussels) – European Union governments’ policy responses to migration undermine refugee protection and human rights and diminish the EU’s moral standing, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 24-page report, “EU Policies Put Refugees at Risk: An Agenda to Restore Protection,” analyzes the EU’s efforts to outsource responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees to other parts of the world that already host the vast majority of refugees, the trend toward restricting refugee rights in the EU, and the failure to step up refugee resettlement. The report sets out recommendations to guide Europe’s response to boat and other migration and says that EU governments should urgently change course on their policies.
“The year 2016 stands out as a time when the EU decided to shut the door to refugees, and make life harder for those already here,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The rush to make the EU a hostile environment and keep people away at all costs belittles the enormous often life-endangering risks people take to escape conflict, persecution and human rights abuses, and runs counter to Europe’s values.”
Mismanagement and lack of coordination among EU governments contributed to a political and humanitarian crisis in 2015, when more than one million asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe by sea. While arrivals have been much lower in 2016 – less than 340,000 – significant challenges persist, with front-line EU countries shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility. More than 4,600 people trying to reach Europe by sea have died or been reported missing at sea so far in 2016, the deadliest year on record.
In 2016, the EU focused on preventing arrivals and outsourcing responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees to regions and countries outside the EU, Human Rights Watch said. The EU-Turkey deal on refugees, a new framework for relations with third countries premised on migration cooperation, and the training the EU is providing to the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy all reflect this approach.
All three policies have positive aspects, including providing aid to improve the lives of refugees and host communities in countries of first arrival and asylum, and building capacity to save lives at sea. But the policies carry significant risks of human rights abuses against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. The EU appears to have used aid as leverage to pressure Afghanistan into agreeing to accept back tens of thousands of rejected asylum seekers, despite the precarious security situation in much of the country.
Inside the EU, national governments are rolling back asylum rights, including the right to family reunification. The European Commission has proposed a raft of adjustments to EU asylum laws, including measures to make it harder to qualify for protection in EU countries, punish asylum seekers for moving between EU countries, and impose compulsory reviews to facilitate revoking protection and forced returns. More positively, the proposals would increase safeguards in asylum procedures and include siblings and families formed in transit in the definition of family.
The failure to share responsibility for asylum seekers fairly across the EU is one of the key shortcomings of the current system and was a major factor in the chaos at Europe’s borders in 2015, Human Rights Watch said. But a European Commission proposal in 2016 to reform the Dublin Regulation, which determines the country responsible for processing an asylum claim, places overwhelming emphasis on restricting movement of asylum seekers from one EU country to another, through disincentives and punishment, while reinforcing the primary responsibility on often overburdened first EU countries of arrival.
The proposed changes to Dublin fail to take into adequate consideration asylum seekers’ preferred destination within the EU, based on family, cultural, and linguistic ties or other considerations, all of which are key to long-term integration, Human Rights Watch said. The EU’s emergency relocation plan adopted in 2015 has failed to function as needed, with only 7,000 asylum seekers transferred out of Greece and Italy out of the target number of 106,000.
The EU has also failed to step up significantly resettlement of recognized refugees from other regions. The European Commission has proposed an EU resettlement program that would effectively condition the choice of countries from which the EU would resettle refugees on the “effective cooperation” of those governments with EU migration control imperatives. Resettlement is a key way to help recognized refugees rebuild their lives without having to risk dangerous journeys. Holding that option hostage to their host country’s level of cooperation with EU interests is a subversion of the principle of shared responsibility and thwarts the goal of providing durable solutions to the most vulnerable refugees, Human Rights Watch said.
The EU and its member countries should work collectively to make saving lives at sea a priority through sustained search-and-rescue operations along the main Mediterranean migration routes, increase safe and legal channels for refugees into the EU to reduce demand for smuggling and dangerous journeys, and demonstrate leadership in the global displacement crisis. It should respect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees already in Europe by ensuring the highest possible standards for asylum procedures, rights, and entitlements, and share responsibility equitably within the EU by implementing the emergency relocation plan and reforming the Dublin system in a way that addresses its fundamental flaws.
“With uncertainty over US leadership on refugees after Obama leaves office, the world needs principled leadership from Europe on refugees,” Sunderland said. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also critical if Europe wants other countries to continue to host and protect refugees.”