Europe needs a humane and effective European migration policy worthy of its name

20.09.2020 - Article

Minister of State Michael Roth in the newspaper “Welt”

Moria has become a warning signal – of immense suffering, despair and a failed European policy on migration. Providing emergency aid and ensuring that the most urgent needs of people there are met is a humanitarian imperative. The fact that Germany, along with other members of the European Union, is setting a good example and taking in people who require protection is both a necessary step and our duty as fellow human beings, in view of this humanitarian catastrophe. In our actions, we are guided by the European moral compass. This compass is not some inconsequential cliché; it stands for a set of values we all need to adhere to, and they are enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.

This, however, is a tedious, complicated and ad hoc way of addressing a humanitarian emergency. It is no replacement for well-founded policies. Moria shows us yet again that we must finally agree on a humane and effective European migration policy that is worthy of its name. One that is built on the principles of humanity, solidarity and responsibility and that strikes a healthy balance, with clear rules and orderly procedures. Knee-jerk reactions of dismay and short-lived consternation will accomplish just as little as will categorical refusals and pulling up the drawbridge. Obviously, no one has a cut-and-dried solution for a new European migration policy. But we must finally put an end to the many years of gridlock and obstruction!

In the coming days, the European Commission will at last present its long awaited reform proposals. Since Germany currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, we are under a special obligation and will do everything in our power to facilitate a breakthrough in the negotiations. For this to happen, everyone in the EU will need to make concessions, so that we can finally bridge the deep divides within our community. A truly new beginning – with a strong moral compass and a clear idea of what is required, what can be done and what is necessary – is long overdue.

Our top priority must be to provide refugees with the protection to which they are entitled. This is not only about our obligations under international law. It is also about what we strive to be, about the very nature of our community of shared values, and about our credibility. How can the EU take its place on the world stage as a proactive player that is guided by values and wants to persevere in the ruthless struggle of competing systems – also against increasingly self-confident authoritarianism – if it so miserably fails a test of character on such fundamental issues? At the end of the day, a humane and functional migration policy is in the vested strategic interest of everyone in the EU, especially for countries that until now showed no interest in comprehensive European solutions.

To succeed, migration policy must take a holistic approach. At European level, it is essential to better protect the external borders of EU member states and to ensure a functioning European asylum system that is based on the principle of solidarity. The burden that is being borne by EU member states with external borders must be significantly lightened. For many years, they have felt abandoned. We finally need a dependable solution for how we deal with people who have been rescued at sea. Not a single refugee should perish in the Mediterranean.

There is a need for swift and effective procedures that are consistent with the rule of law and that rapidly determine whether individuals are entitled to protection; and there is a need for first decisions to be made directly at the border regarding who is – and who is not – likely to qualify for refugee status. If we want to afford protection to those who need it most, then that also means we must swiftly repatriate those who do not qualify for it. This must be done through a fair procedure and with support for those returning to, and reintegrating into, their home countries. When it comes to taking in those eligible for protection, a European asylum system must be based on the fair distribution of refugees among EU member states. Any country insisting it can by no means grant temporary stays to refugees must make other contributions, in a spirit of obligatory and flexible solidarity – for example, in the form of money, personnel or an increased commitment to development cooperation and humanitarian aid. No one can be allowed to simply abdicate their responsibility. It is crucial for everyone to show solidarity. Also, regions and municipalities that take in refugees must receive more EU funding. Many citizens are demonstrating tremendous solidarity and an impressive willingness to help. They clearly have no problem taking Europe’s values seriously.

However, to be truly comprehensive, migration policy must also become effective foreign policy. In stabilising conflict regions and defending human rights and peace throughout the world, we are addressing the main reasons why people flee or are displaced. This brings together several strands of work: development cooperation can improve people’s prospects at home, just as climate change mitigation and fair trade can help fight the root causes of displacement. It is equally important to combat criminal human trafficking rings, and to create legal routes to migration. Europe has always been a continent of immigration and emigration.

The key to this is forging strong partnerships with countries of origin and transit and with host countries. Despite the current tensions, this includes Turkey. The country has taken in more than four million refugees, and those who have sought shelter in Turkey must be able to count on continued support from Europe. Another key component is close cooperation with other transit countries in Europe’s neighbourhood, i.e. in North Africa and the Western Balkans. For example, many displaced persons are living on the street in degrading conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and urgently need support. There, too, the issue of displacement and migration is creating political tensions and social unrest.

Displacement and migration are global challenges that we will be dealing with for a long time to come. Nationalists and populists have gotten it wrong: closing ourselves off and retreating to the national level are not the answer. What we need now is a plan that is both realistic and can be implemented. Only through international cooperation and comprehensive policies on migration and asylum will we be able to make migration more orderly on a global scale. At the same time, we will increase acceptance among those in Europe who are sceptical of a common asylum system – one that is based on solidarity and humanity, that shows where Europe’s strengths lie, and that gives those who are eligible the protection they deserve. Last but not least, a well-founded, wise and effective European migration and asylum policy is also the best way to respond to the toxic rhetoric and cynical incitement of nationalist and populist forces – because it saps these narratives of their strength. At the same time, all those who are seeking protection remind us of what a valuable and unique treasure Europe is. Let us share this treasure with those who are entitled to protection. And let us safeguard our values.


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