The EU needs a new migration policy. Here’s how to make it work for people.

Omar* (27), Fatima* and their 2-year-old son left their native city Hassaka, Syria, where they could no longer live because of the war. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

The arrival of winter really shouldn’t be a surprise for the people overseeing the Europe Union’s welcome of refugees and migrants on its shores. Last year, several people died in European-run “hotspots” in Greece due to reasons related to the harsh winter conditions. Yet the EU and its member states have not learned the lessons — neither from last year’s disastrous winter, nor from the other failings of its response to the arrival of refugees and other migrants on its shores.

In 2015, the European Union announced its Migration Agenda: a blueprint for managing migration. It was meant to set out a balanced and humane approach to migration. In fact, the policies directed by the Migration Agenda have sacrificed people’s safety and wellbeing inside and outside Europe in a desperate attempt to stop irregular migration at all costs.

Broken hands of O., 35 years old, from Tehran, Iran. He broke his hands while crossing the mountains on the border between Bulgaria and Serbia. Pablo Tosco/Oxfam, Nov 2015

Abuse at the hand of authorities, children at risk of abuse and people’s fundamental rights trampled on

So what’s wrong with the EU’s response to migration?

Oxfam has received testimonies of:

— all as a result of EU policies.

Refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece. Pablo Tosco/Oxfam, Dec 2016

8 principles for better European Union migration policies

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Migration Agenda could be redeemed to harness the benefits of migration and actually help people in need. Oxfam’s report “Beyond Fortress Europe” — based on first-hand experiences of some of the devastating impacts linked to the EU’s Migration Agenda — outlines eight guiding principles for how EU migration policy could be restored to one that is humane and effective.

Policies which address migration-related issues in countries of origin or transit must adhere to the following principles:
1. Make development work for people
2. Do not ignore the risks — address them
3. Rescue people in danger
4. Improve and increase safe and regular mobility options.

Europe’s policies for managing migration at and within its borders must follow these principles:
5. Ensure people can live their lives in dignity
6. Ensure asylum procedures are accessible, fair and effective
7. Do not detain people simply on the basis of their migration status, and 
8. Help families to reunite.

Getting the basics right on European shores

People who have reached Europe in their search for safety and dignity are trapped in inadequate conditions in “hotspots” in Greece and Italy. They are often separated from their families and, in many cases, don’t have the information and support they need whilst applying for asylum. They must not be forgotten by the EU.

During the asylum process, detention must not become the rule, but should instead only be a last resort, if it is used at all. EU policies should also help people reunite with their families, which has proven to be a critical factor for success of integration into our societies.

The MSF rescue team discovered the overcrowded inflatable boat of these migrants approximately 30 miles north of Libya’s coast by chance. The boat was carrying 140 people, including 18 children. Photo: Alessandro Rota/Oxfam

Investing aid for development and humanitarian needs

Stopping irregular migration from Africa is now one of the EU’s top priorities. European leaders present irregular migration as a threat, rather than an opportunity, and they are putting all their effort into to showing that the numbers of people on the move are dropping.

But a better way is possible. Migration can be managed with the aim of making it safer, cheaper, and more beneficial for migrants, including refugees. It can also be managed to maximize its benefits for both Europe and the countries people are traveling from and through. European leaders are denying this simple fact and thus playing into the hands of populist fearmongers.

Improving mobility between African countries is crucial for their development, and is a priority of the African Union. People move between communities, regions, countries; some do so for trade, some seek job opportunities in cities nearby, and others are forced to flee trying to escape conflict, natural disasters or drought. Only very, very few people try to reach further destinations, in some cases Europe.

If the EU wants to make a difference, it should make migration easier and safer for those people who are forced to leave their homes, support people who are displaced, and work to reduce conflicts, poverty and inequality.

It should invest in poverty reduction and in regional mobility. It should also support local, regional, and international initiatives that would make displacement more bearable, including by financing authorities and humanitarian organisations who are best placed to provide help.

It must make it easier for refugees to seek asylum and do its fair share of offering them a safe place to live in.

Sisters from Kobane, Syria wait to leave Serbia (near the Croatian border), on their way to Norway to meet up with their three brothers. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam, Oct 2015

Making the right choice

The principles we are putting forward would help European governments to regain respect and trust, by respecting basic human rights, protecting migrants and refugees and working with countries to overcome poverty. They are reasonable suggestions, and they would be easy to implement.

European policies need to offer real alternatives to people, recognising that migration is a part of human nature and the world we live in that needs attention, not mitigation.

Text by Raphael Shilhav, Oxfam’s EU Migration Policy Advisor, author of Oxfam’s latest report on EU migration policy.

Photos by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam, Sam Tarling/Oxfam.

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