The EU at 60: Will the EU Regain Its Lost Humanity Regarding Refugees?

On March 25, EU leaders – with the exception of British Prime Minister Theresa May – will meet in Rome to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the European Economic Community’s creation. This was a remarkable feat for countries that had so recently and bitterly fought on opposite sides in the Second World War. It is inexcusable that sixty years later, they appear to have utterly forgotten - or willfully ignored - the lessons of a war that killed and displaced millions.

EU countries are now facing the largest displacement crisis since World War II, and instead of responding with humanity and effectiveness, they have turned their backs on and closed their borders to people urgently seeking protection. Well over a million people have crossed the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015, fleeing wars, violence, persecution, and human rights abuses in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. Greece and Italy, on the frontlines of a situation that should have been manageable for the world’s richest economic bloc, have been left to address the crisis largely on their own.

       "... instead of responding with humanity and effectiveness, the EU countries have turned their backs on and closed their borders to people urgently seeking protection."

As I sit in Lampedusa, a little Mediterranean island where over the years tens of thousands of people have disembarked, having survived the deadly journey from Libya, this reality is painfully clear. Desperate to reduce the number of people arriving on Italy’s shores, EU leaders have been working hard to find ways to keep people out. In a joint declaration last month in Malta on the “external aspects of migration,” they made it clear that their priority is to reduce departures from Libya. Mentions of the right to asylum are completely absent, despite the fact that many of those arriving in Italy are fleeing threats to their lives.

This week in Rome, Ministers of the Interior from eight EU states met with Fayez al-Sarraj, the Prime Minister of the UN-backed government in Tripoli and committed to equip the Libyan coast guard so that it can control its sea borders and take intercepted people back to camps in Libya. The Italian Minister of the Interior said that those camps would be set-up with humanitarian organizations “in full respect of people’s rights.” It’s hard to see how that will be possible.

Over the past week, I have met with asylum-seekers and migrants who have described how Libya was “hell,” how they were “treated like animals, not humans.” When I asked about the rate of sexual abuse women asylum-seekers and migrants were subjected to in Libya, a UN official said that “every or almost every woman” had experienced it.

Il coltello – “knife” in Italian – is the term some used to describe how they were forced to sleep while being held by smugglers in Libya. Without enough space to sleep lying on their backs, they were stacked against each other on the floor, like knives. Several said they had been sold by one smuggler to another like human cargo. A commonly described practice is for smugglers to abuse the people they held while on the phone with their relatives, so the relatives would pay for their release. A leaked report by German diplomats described the conditions in detention centers run by human traffickers for asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya as “concentration-camp-like.”

And yet this is in Libya EU leaders hope to “ensure adequate reception capacities for migrants,” with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), both of which stressed that the current conditions in Libya make it unsafe for that purpose.

A few days ago, Europe marked another shameful anniversary: the adoption of the EU-Turkey agreement. In exchange for billions of Euros in aid, a reopening of EU accession negotiations, and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU, Turkey agreed to accept asylum-seekers and migrants who crossed irregularly to the Greek islands and to stem the flow of people crossing Turkey’s borders with Greece. A year on, thousands are still stuck on the islands, millions of Euros of EU aid to Greece have not translated into better conditions for all asylum-seekers and migrants, and the protections Turkey provides for asylum-seekers (whether they are from Syria, Afghanistan or other countries) are still inadequate.

          "For European leaders, the meeting in Rome should be an occasion for soul-searching about their lost humanity."

The failed attempt to a fairer distribution of asylum-seekers among EU countries to alleviate the strain on Greece and Italy’s resources illustrates the lack of solidarity with those frontline states: EU countries agreed to take in 160,000 asylum-seekers from Italy and Greece by September 2017 and process their asylum claims. And yet by March they had only relocated 14,400.

The asylum-seekers and migrants I am meeting in Lampedusa have survived unimaginable abuses, dehumanizing treatment, and a sea journey that is the deadliest in the world. They are safe now – albeit with uncertain futures – but they have left many other asylum-seekers and migrants behind. It is impossible to accept that sixty years after World War II, the EU has no better answer than to close its borders to these men, women, and children.

For European leaders, the meeting in Rome should be an occasion for soul-searching about their lost humanity.