Wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time in history to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere, according to UNHCR's annual Global Trends Report: World at War, released on June 18, two days before world refugee day. The global number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, including persons in refugee-like situations, was estimated at 14.4 million at year end, some 2.7 million more than at the end of 2013. One of the most recent and highly visible consequences of the world's conflicts and the terrible suffering they cause has been the dramatic growth in the numbers of refugees seeking safety through dangerous sea journeys, including on the Mediterranean, in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, and in Southeast Asia, according to the report. On October 10th last year I wrote a blog about border controls and human rights: migration in the central Mediterranean. Since then more Mediterranean disasters have followed: in 2014 219 000 Mediterranean crossings took place while several thousands died at sea. Although the human tragedies in the Mediterranean have led to increased awareness and publicity in the media, the question remains to be answered what to do about the mixed migration flows across the Mediterranean. Let me recap some of the opinions and proposals brought forward.

“What we are dealing with is a humanitarian tragedy and a displacement crisis unfolding in the European periphery, in the turmoil of which a sizeable, but comparatively still small proportion of refugees seek protection in Europe. Despite all talk about 'regional solutions', it is easily forgotten that the vast majority of refugees stay in their own region”, Hein de Haas says. They live in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Lebanon (25 % of its population). In comparison the number of refugees coming to Europe is quite limited. With the exception of a few countries such as Sweden, Germany, and Hungary, most European countries have only accepted a small number of refugees (the lowest rates of asylum applicants were observed in eleven Member States: Croatia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Spain (all below 50 first time applicants per million inhabitants) so the problem is rather the unequitable distribution of asylum seekers among EU member states.

We have to secure our borders...

On the 20th of april 2015 at a joint meeting of European Foreign and Interior Ministers, Dimitris Avramopoulos – the European Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Commissioner – presented a 10-point plan to prevent more tragedies in the Mediterranean after 900 people were killed while trying to reach Europe. None of the ten points mentions the development of legal and regular channels to Europe, but instead the majority of the proposals reflected the EU’s intense focus on securing its borders. “The EU will make a systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the people smugglers, using the EU’s counter-piracy “Atalanta” operation off Somalia as a model”. Whereas it can be argued that stopping pirates makes the journey for their potential target vessel safer, this is not the case with respect to human smugglers. In the absence of legal means of immigration to Europe destroying smugglers’  boats in Libya may not deter individuals from trying to reach Europe but more likely push them to use alternative routes, potentially longer and even riskier. In addition the ones who want to make the journey are currently Eritrean or Syrian refugees (so legitimate refugees in the sense of the Refugee Convention) who are then trapped in Libya. Libya is not only swept by instability and violence, but it is also quite infamous with respect to its commitment to refugees’ rights, as Melanie Fink points out. (a PhD researcher at Leiden University and the University of Vienna). It can also be questioned that the Security Council will authorize the use of force on Libyan territory even if the the transborder flow of refugees can be considered as a threat to international peace and security.

Regular channels

Several scholars and civil society organisations argue that the EU should develop more legal and regular channels to Europe for protection, family reunification and employment, including more opportunities for low-skilled employment (beyond seasonal workers). This last point is also mentioned by Hein de Haas. “There is a demand for low-skilled employment. Ask people who work in big urban areas (like de Randstad in the Netherlands) who cleans their house, ask who washes the dishes in restaurants or picks tomatoes in the field”. Ask the expats (a migrant by the way) who is the nanny of their children. Strategic use of existing temporary and permanent visa categories for people who can qualify, multiple entry visa, and private sponsorship schemes are additional ideas put forward (for instance by Professor McAdam and the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau).

Offshore processing centres

There have been calls for the establishment of offshore processing centres to allow migrants to lodge asylum claims without having to make the dangerous journey to Europe by sea. Marketa Wittichova and Benjamin Tallis from the Centre for European Security write that offshoring aspects of migration control could simultaneously protect both migrants and the integrity of the Schengen zone’s borders. However, they add, it would need to be combined with longer-term actions to address the causes of the crisis, and carefully managed to ensure that the EU and member  states live up to their stated values and legal commitments – something that offshoring strategies elsewhere have failed to achieve (Australia). The EU would need to find suitable partners to host processing centres, while ensuring that conditions in the camps adhere to its commitments to protect the fundamental rights and human decency of migrants.

Latest developments

On May 13th, the European Commission presented its European Agenda on Migration as a response to the crisis situation in the Mediterranean. For the first time some structural reforms are on the agenda, like a new quota ystem for relocating refugees within Europe, and indeed the opening up of legal avenues for people to enter Europe safely and working in partnership with third countries to tackle migration upstream. But the question is will the EU leaders implement these agenda items. The European Council is expected to consider the agenda on 25 and 26 June. One of the points missing on the agenda is the need to challenge increasingly dominant discourses that see migrations only as a burden or as a threat, and which are often based on xenophobic attitudes that are anathema to the EU’s values and history, as Benjamin Tallis points out. As ICJ judge Cançado Trindade has said it: "There is a pressing need to situate the human being in the place that corresponds to him, certainly above capitals, goods and services. This is perhaps the major challenge of the 'globalized' world in which we live, from the perspective of human rights".

Cartoon: © Chappatte.  www.globecartoon.com.

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