EU Must Fill the Leadership Gap Left by the United States on Refugee Protection
As European Union (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini visits Washington, D.C. this week, the issue of international protection for refugees should top her agenda. Mogherini reacted with strong words to President Trump’s Executive Order suspending the U.S. refugee resettlement program for at least 120 days and indefinitely for Syrian refugees and banning the entry of the nationals of seven Muslim majority countries for 90 days. Speaking before the European Parliament in Brussels last week, Mogherini said, “Our European history has told us to celebrate when a wall is torn down and a bridge is built…the European Union will not turn back anyone who has the right to international protection.”
While Mogherini’s calls for the Trump administration to reverse its Executive Order would be welcome – as was the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on Thursday night, which maintained the suspension of the travel ban – the EU and its member states should examine their own policies closing doors on those fleeing violence and persecution. Until the EU and its member states change their approach to those seeking protection, any demands they make on President Trump will ring hollow.
The Trump Executive Order has had devastating consequences, with thousands of people prevented from traveling to the United States. While it has been temporarily suspended by the judiciary, it significantly weakens the U.S. leadership on refugee protection issues and its credibility with other countries that are hosting far more refugees than the United States or with other Western nations when urging them to keep their borders open. In this context, EU leadership on these issues is not only desirable, it is necessary.
But over the past year, the EU has shown a lack of willingness to welcome refugees and asylum-seekers who are in dire need of international protection. Instead, it has sought ways to prevent the vulnerable people from reaching its shores.
Just last week, EU leaders in Malta adopted a declaration “on the external aspects of migration”, addressing the Central Mediterranean route – between Libya and Italy – which has become the main transit route for asylum-seekers and migrants trying to reach Europe. The Malta Declaration could not be clearer: the EU’s priority is to prevent departures from Libya and other countries in the region and increase returns from EU countries. Not once does the declaration refer to the right to asylum or the measures the EU and its member states should take to ensure people can access international protection. The inhumane conditions in which asylum-seekers and migrants are held in Libya’s detention centers are well documented. A report by German diplomats recently leaked to the press described “executions,” “rapes,” “torture,” and “concentration-camp-like conditions” in such centers.
One of the Malta Declaration’s stated priorities is “seeking to ensure adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants, together with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and IOM (the International Organization for Migration).” Yet both organizations have warned that in the current context “it is not appropriate to consider Libya a safe third country not to establish extraterritorial processing of asylum-seekers in North Africa.”
The EU’s approach is based on the belief that the EU agreement it signed with Turkey last March, with the aim of stemming the flows of migrants and asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Greece in the hope of reaching northern Europe, is a success. Since the agreement, Greece, which hosts around 60,000 asylum-seekers and migrants, has prevented people who arrived on its islands from traveling to the mainland without authorization. As a result, 13,699 of them are stuck on the Greek islands, which, with a capacity of 8,848, are severely overcrowded. Earlier this year, images of people living in tents in the snow in Greece shocked many. But conditions continue to be severe: within one week in January, three people died in the overcrowded Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, their deaths suspected to be caused by fumes they inhaled in an attempt to keep warm.
The EU-Turkey agreement also provides for people who traveled to Greece irregularly to be returned to Turkey, which hosts the world’s largest number of refugees and asylum-seekers in the world and where access to employment, education, and adequate housing is a struggle for most.
As the U.S. government distances itself from the principles of solidarity and acceptance of refugees, there is a gap that the EU should urgently fill. But it can only do so if it dramatically changes its own approach to asylum and migration.