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Migration Obsession is Killing EU’s Commitment to Human Rights

The Next Victim of the Bloc’s Migration Obsession May Well be Itself

Published in: Politico
Sudanese and Yemeni men show their refugee or asylum seeker cards on April 12, 2023 outside the International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in Tunis, after Tunisian police on April 11 used force and tear gas to disperse refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants and dismantled their makeshift camp in front of the nearby UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Tunis. © 2023 Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

Portrayed for years as the only Arab Spring success story, Tunisia is today everything but. Since staging a “constitutional coup” in 2021, President Kais Saied has dissolved the parliament and fired the prime minister, concentrated power in his office, jailed critics and opponents, and crushed democratic aspirations. Unable to address the country’s deep economic crisis, he resorted to the classic populist textbook: find scapegoats.

The disadvantaged minority of choice is Black African migrants and asylum-seekers – also a favorite among Europe’s far right. Blamed for all the country’s problems, de-humanized and targeted through hate speech uttered by Saied himself, Black Africans in Tunisia suffer horrendous abuses, including growing violence, discrimination, and collective expulsions on Tunisia’s land borders, leading scores to die in desert border areas.

Looking at the European Union’s countless pledges to promote human rights and democracy in its foreign policy, one would have expected a strong reaction to those abuses and efforts to support a return to democracy in Tunisia.

In fact, the opposite happened.

In a July 15 trip to Tunis, a controversial “Team Europe” pledged hundreds of millions of Euros to support Tunisia’s economic development, asking nothing in exchange other than cooperation in preventing departures of migrants and asylum-seekers toward Europe.

Neither the deal nor the public remarks by “Team Europe” representatives made any reference – let alone announced measures to address – Saied’s authoritarianism and the need to end abuses against Black Africans in the country.

Sadly, where Europe is concerned, this was not an isolated incident.

As early as  2008, the Italian right-wing government led by Silvio Berlusconi struck a deal with Muammar Gaddafi, then the Libyan leader, condemning thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to  abusive indefinite detention in the country. Nine years later, as post-Gaddafi Libya collapsed into lawlessness, Italy’s centre-left government led by Paolo Gentiloni reached, with the EU’s blessing, another deal with the former Libyan Government of National Accord aimed purely at curtailing migration.

Legally prohibited from returning people rescued by EU vessels to Libya, European governments decided to halt search and rescue operations and to pump money and equipment into the “Libyan coast guard,” largely comprised of militias, warlords and their henchmen, whose brutality against people on the move is amply documented – and continues with Europe’s complicity.

In 2016, the EU signed a deal with Turkey to send back mainly Syrian refugees who had reached Greece, despite  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism. The EU provides financial support for border control to countries, like Egypt and Morocco, whose  leaders regularly get the red carpet in the EU despite their well-documented abuses, including against migrants and asylum-seekers.

They are rumored to be next in line for deals similar to the one with Tunisia, hailed by EU Commission President von der Leyen as a “blueprint” for the region.

Europe’s determination to curb migration at any cost doesn’t stop at Mediterranean shores, and has poisoned other areas of the EU’s external action, including trade and development aid.

Already in 2015, at the Valletta Summit, the EU and its member states agreed to condition development funding to African countries on their strengthening border control.

The EU Commission and member states are also trying to turn the Generalised Scheme of Preferences into a tool to blackmail Asian and African governments for migration control.

Individually, these examples may appear cynical, ill-conceived and short-sighted. But together, they show a well-established EU strategy that has moved the bloc away from prioritizing rights and values in its foreign policy.

The meaning and implications of this deliberate choice are devastating.

First, the EU has been making it tragically clear that its human rights commitments do not apply to migrants and asylum seekers, especially if they come from Africa or the Middle East. Their death, ill-treatment and suffering are deemed a better alternative to their presence on European soil.

Second, while the EU is collectively the world’s biggest humanitarian donor and a leading voice in multilateral human rights fora, its blind support to repressive governments that pledge to keep migrants away, amplifies major double standards in EU foreign policy. This erodes the credibility of the EU as a principled human rights actor, making it harder for the bloc to rally international backing for initiatives it leads on.

Third, by emboldening the oppressors instead of siding with the oppressed, the EU betrays the countless activists, journalists, critics and human rights defenders who keep paying a high price for exposing their governments’ corruption and abuses as they seek a democratic and rights-respecting transition in their countries.

Finally, the EU’s choice poses an existential danger to the bloc itself. While investment in integration and setting up safe and legal pathways for orderly migration has remained insufficient, EU institutions and mainstream parties’ leaders have increasingly parroted the far-right’s demagogic narrative, portraying migration as an unmanageable security concern.

This stance contributes to the far-right’s rise to power and influence across Europe. For a bloc that still takes key decisions by unanimity, the risk of paralysis is concrete. Furthermore, the rise of the far right threatens not only the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, but also those of women, LGBT people, and other minorities in Europe, as well as adherence to the rule of law in a growing number of EU countries.

Sacrificing migrants’ and refugees’ rights for short-term political gains is not only a morally bankrupt choice. It also contributes to a chain reaction that risks having a disastrous impact on the EU and its founding values. The next victim of the EU’s migration obsession could be the EU itself.

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