‘A Europe that protects’ should protect migrants and refugees

14 September 2018
Comment
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers his State of the Union speech. Photo: European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

‘A Europe that protects’ was the tagline of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech this week, in which he announced plans for an additional 10,000 Frontex border guards. This is a massive six-fold increase on the current brigade of 1,600 border guards.

But if it means tighter control and policing of Europe’s borders, then let’s not forget Europe’s other responsibility to ‘protect’, enshrined in the 1951 International Refugee Convention to which all European governments are signatories.

Let’s not forget Europe’s other responsibility to ‘protect’, enshrined in the 1951 International Refugee Convention to which all European governments are signatories.

This commits governments to provide asylum to people fleeing persecution in their own countries. It also commits governments not to forcibly return people to countries where their lives may be in danger, otherwise known as the ‘principle of non-refoulement’.

Here is a case in point. Many Sudanese arriving irregularly in Europe – usually on flimsy boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean – are Darfuris fleeing persecution in their own country.

This week we published a report documenting, for the first time, the level of systematic persecution, arrest and harassment faced by certain ethnic groups associated with the rebellion in Darfur’s long-running conflict. Those living in camps and student activists are particularly targeted, forcing many young Darfuri men to leave.

In search of safety and a secure future, most take a well-worn route to Libya where there has been a long tradition of Darfuri migrant workers. These days, however, ‘work in Libya’ often means bonded labour.

As some of the poorest African migrants in Libya, Darfuris cannot afford quick and safe journeys through the country; in other words, they cannot ‘buy’ their protection.

Many Darfuris are subject to extreme exploitation and abuse. As some of the poorest African migrants in Libya, Darfuris cannot afford quick and safe journeys through the country; in other words, they cannot ‘buy’ their protection. So they press on to Europe, now escaping persecution in their own country and in Libya.

Political instability and/or conflict in many countries neighbouring Sudan – such as South Sudan and Egypt – means they have few alternatives when seeking sanctuary from their own country.

So what does Juncker’s ‘Europe that protects’ mean for this group? It means allowing them to seek safety, treating their asylum claims fairly, based on sound knowledge and understanding of the situation in Sudan that they are fleeing.

It also means the humane treatment and provision of assistance to this group, many of whom have been severely traumatised by their experience in Libya and by their perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

Yet, as we know from the stories of those who are forced to flee, what actually happens is very different. In an effort to curb migration, the EU and Italian government have strengthened the Libyan coastguard and scaled back search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean.

The consequence is that migrants – including the Darfuris – are forced to remain in Libya in horrendous conditions and to face escalating risks in crossing the Mediterranean if they do get past the Libyan coastguard.

For those who make it to Europe, a continent they equate with respect for human rights, they find themselves living on the street, in car parks, under flyovers and in makeshift camps, with minimal or no support.

For those who make it to Europe, a continent they equate with respect for human rights, they find themselves living on the street, in car parks, under flyovers and in makeshift camps, with minimal or no support.

Juncker talked about ‘returning irregular migrants’, instead encouraging the legal migration of skilled migrants. The case of the Darfuris is a sharp reminder that many of those coming to Europe ‘irregularly’ in search of safety do not have this choice. They cannot access legal migration channels from Sudan. The only way they can leave is by paying smugglers and traffickers. ‘Irregular migration’ is their only option.

So in a ‘Europe that protects’, do we really need 10,000 more border guards? To stand by our international commitments to protect, i.e. to offer asylum to those fleeing persecution and to treat those that do humanely, we need instead:

  • To promote the protection of those at risk of persecution in Sudan, including those displaced by conflict, and political activists;
  • Efficient and harmonised asylum procedures across EU member states, that respect where asylum claimants have family connections within Europe;
  • To offer asylum based on a sound analysis and understanding of what claimants are fleeing from;
  • To provide protection and assistance for vulnerable migrants and refugees in transit in Europe, so they are treated humanely and are provided with assistance.

For more detail, read the new ODI/SOAS report: Darfuri migration from Sudan to Europe: from displacement to despair