Faced with escalating deaths in the Mediterranean, official Europe needs to relocate its moral conscience.
Summer approaches and a new humanitarian crisis is developing around Europe’s shores. In just the first four days of May, some 1,500 desperate people landed in Italy. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned of an increasing number of migrants attempting dangerous Mediterranean crossings—and of a growing death toll.
Since January, in bad weather and rough seas, hundreds of people have been rescued from the Atlantic while trying to make the perilous journey from Africa to the Canary Islands. Many more have drowned. Thousands, many of them children, attempted to enter the Spanish territory of Ceuta in May. Most were immediately returned to Morocco.
The European Union’s attempt to launch a new policy on migration and asylum is failing to meet this challenge. Most worryingly, it is threatening to undermine the human rights Europe claims to uphold, as well as perpetuating the abuse and exploitation of migrant labour. Eyewitness reports of illegal pushback operations by Greek border guards, forcing exhausted refugees back into unseaworthy boats, suggest that EU Frontex agents are complicit in this practice.
The European Commission published its European Pact on Migration and Asylum in September 2020. Recognising that ‘migration has been a constant feature of human history’, it purported to promised a ‘fresh start on migration in Europe’, adopting a ‘human and humane approach’. In reality, it reinforced policies of border control, detention and deportation—rather than compassion and respect for human rights—while at the same time revealing the disunity and lack of solidarity among member states.
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The European Trade Union Confederation has condemned the pact. And it goes further in condemning member-state governments which seek to promote domestic political agendas by inciting hatred and xenophobia against vulnerable asylum-seekers, encouraging discrimination and nationalism and entrenching systemic racism.
The ETUC stands for the rights of all migrants, including asylum-seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants. All member states have an obligation to uphold the 1951 UN Geneva convention and its 1967 protocol, to provide legal protection to asylum-seekers—not to return them to countries where their lives or freedoms are threatened (the non-refoulement principle).
Yet the pact enables individual EU governments to breach a series of international conventions and to sponsor deportations as an alternative to allowing refugees to claim their individual right to asylum. This scheme shows anything but ‘solidarity’. Trade unions are calling for a united, humanitarian European asylum system, with an equitable distribution of people seeking refuge among member states.
The commission could have shown political leadership. It could have built a common, binding approach to migration and asylum, obliging all member states to respect international human-rights law. Instead, the strategy fell victim to anti-foreigner extremism and governments which refused to accept their shared responsibilities—leaving a minority of countries on the EU’s borders, such as Italy, still shouldering the burden.
Immigrants want jobs and Europe needs safe and regular routes for labour migration, which prevent exploitation of migrant workers, and regularisation mechanisms for the millions of undocumented migrants who live and work in Europe. The pact makes no new proposals here, yet safe labour migration pathways are the only way to protect workers from abuse.
The vast majority of migrant workers are found in crucial but undervalued sectors, such as health and social care, transport, construction, agriculture and food, and domestic work. Migrant women in particular suffer low pay and insecurity and are vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment.
Denying migrant workers their rights merely benefits unprincipled employers who use asylum-seekers and refugees, undocumented and other precarious workers as cheap labour, which in turn creates hostility and undermines conditions and pay for the whole workforce. Asylum-seekers should have access to employment in all member states and undocumented workers should have equal labour rights, with rapid action to regularise their status.
Trade union representation
The universal human rights of all workers should be respected, regardless of their employment status or nationality. The EU needs to ensure that everyone in the same workplace or sector enjoys fair pay and good working conditions, as well as job security and social protection. The best way to achieve this is through trade union representation.
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The ETUC insists that all migrant workers, including asylum-seekers, refugees and undocumented people, should have the right to decent employment and to join a trade union and benefit from collective bargaining. The commission has already acknowledged that trade unions play a key role in integrating migrants into the labour market.
The pact argues that the EU ‘needs to urgently catch up in the global race for talent’, in light of Europe’s ageing and shrinking population and shortage of specific skills. Yet the ETUC is concerned that the idea of a talent pool of third-country skilled workers would encourage a ‘brain drain’, which would further impoverish countries of origin. The EU needs to welcome migrants across a range of skills, sectors and occupations—not just the highly qualified.
In April, as a ‘key objective’ of the pact, the commission launched its Strategy on voluntary return and reintegration, demonstrating beyond doubt that deportation—rather than rights for refugees and inclusive integration—was the underlying philosophy. The commission’s policy will see more people deported from the EU in violation of fundamental rights.
Besides reports of involvement in pushback operations, the Frontex border agency is also mired in allegations of workplace harassment, mismanagement and financial irregularities. Yet the strategy proposes that a reinforced Frontex should support member states ‘in all stages of the voluntary return and reintegration process’. The ETUC deplores moves to strengthen the powers of Frontex over deportations, at the very moment when it is under investigation for taking part in illegal pushbacks. Instead, the commission should be working with the European Parliament to bring Frontex back under democratic control and ensure it complies with fundamental rights.
The continuing loss of life highlights the need for comprehensive search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. Yet far from establishing a co-ordinated mission, the pact threatens to prevent civil-society organisations from saving lives at sea, warning that the EU and member states will work to stop private vessels undermining ‘migration management’.
The European Parliament has itself voiced concerns about the pact, and criticised the commission and some member states for reaching bilateral border-control agreements with third countries which lack democratic scrutiny and threaten to breach migrants’ human rights. Calling—as has the ETUC—for more legal migration channels, the parliament points out that legal migration has barely figured in the EU’s policy in this area since 2015.
In late April, in just one incident off the Libyan coast, more than 100 people died, including a mother and her child. The International Organization for Migration and UNHCR have found that migrants and refugees in Libya continue to be subjected to arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, exploitation and violence, pushing them to make risky—sometimes fatal—sea crossings.
According to UNHCR, the number of arrivals in Italy by sea this year is already over 15,000, an increase of 177 per cent on the same period in 2020. Nearly 800 people have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean—more than double the toll for the comparable interval last year.
Such figures are frightening. But official Europe needs to stop regarding migrants merely as statistics and start to recognise them as human beings—each with an individual story and aspirations, and the right to dignity and respect.