Far too many people are dying every year at the EU's external borders. A few days ago, the Mediterranean waters were, once again, the scene of this human tragedy where hopes, dreams, families and lives drowned forever. As always, the same question remains: how to avoid this human drama in future?
What happened recently in Lampedusa and Malta demonstrated the EU's inability to fulfil the Treaties' objectives, to set up a common policy in the field of asylum and immigration, and to become a central player at international level. This mainly has to do with Member States' inability to address current challenges and their unwillingness to consider the EU as the appropriate level of decision making and action.
Following these recent tragedies, Heads of State and Government put this issue on this week's European Council agenda. It is unclear what possible remedies will be discussed, but one thing should be clear: EU leaders cannot escape answering the remaining question any longer. Hence, no lives will be saved if Heads of State and Government use the same old recipe: targeted and usual financial and practical support, good intentions and grand rhetoric recalling EU solidarity without committing anyone to action.
EU leaders have to provide clear and strong answers on what actions will be taken together at EU level instead of descending into the usual petty politics which characterise EU migration debates. This week's Summit should begin a new phase, aiming to establish a real and comprehensive common immigration and asylum policy worthy of its name.
People who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea at the beginning of October were Somalis, Eritreans and Syrians. No one can deny that these people were fleeing because they feared for their lives. No one can refute that they were seeking protection that EU Member States are obliged to grant, according to international agreements and EU law. So why did the EU and its Member States fail to protect these people?
Fundamentally, the EU is still unable to fully combine two apparently conflicting objectives: fighting against irregular migration and granting access to international protection, in particular when it comes to mixed flows, i.e. arrivals of groups of people comprising asylum seekers and economic migrants. One objective is to protect the EU's border through increased border controls and rules on irregular migration – which, for instance, enable states to impose sanctions on fishermen rescuing people at sea. Another objective dictates that people fleeing for their lives reach EU territory and gain access to an asylum procedure as early as possible.
While securing borders still takes precedence over protection, nevertheless some progress has been made to strike a better balance. Human rights issues are now deeply embedded into Frontex action and mandate. This has been developed in particular through the training of border guards, the newly appointed Fundamental Rights Officer and the establishment of a consultative forum, composed of relevant organisations which advise Frontex in all fundamental rights matters. The recently adopted European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) may also be used to identify people in difficult situations at sea more rapidly. Hence, the system may be turned into a ‘rescuing people’ rather than a ‘securing borders’ mechanism.
But rescuing remains a sensitive issue. Indeed, Member States still refrain from adopting a regulation which should define the substantial and procedural rules regarding rescue and disembarkation which have to be followed by Member States and Frontex during the joint operations coordinated by the latter. The European Council should take a strong position on this issue and request Ministers to speed up adoption of the regulation. At the same time, EU leaders should recall Member States' commitment to respect international rules regarding rescue at sea in actions falling within their national competences.
In addition, saving people's lives requires a broader policy approach. Addressing protection issues should take into account what the EU can do to avoid people embarking on dangerous routes into the EU. Providing protection as early as possible should be a primary concern. Furthermore, this implies creating the conditions for individuals to have access to asylum in the countries of origin, initially through Member States’ consulates, taken over by EU delegations in the long run. The European External Action Service (EEAS) could play a crucial role in organising the processing of asylum claims and the resettlement of accepted refugees in the EU.
While some new solutions could be developed, it should be stressed that the lack of a real EU foreign policy aiming to avoid and/or solve conflicts taking place in its backyard does not help in addressing the issue of people fleeing and dying at EU's borders. In this regard, the EU's silence regarding the Syrian conflict is a cruel example.
People dying at the EU's external borders are not only asylum seekers. Many of them are individuals seeking better life conditions and dignity. In the words of François Crépeau, UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, migration is a "dignity seeking journey".
This journey can turn into a nightmare if channels of legal migration, which remain mainly under the sovereign power of Member States, are closed. When people are not able to get a visa or face restrictive national admission policies, they then try to enter the EU through unauthorised channels, and sometimes through trafficking networks.
Member States are right when they point out the need to fight traffickers and to develop EU measures in this regard. It is also their obligation to develop EU rules and mechanisms to address irregular migration. However, a common migration policy is not a one-sided policy based on security-oriented rules. A common migration policy should also be based on common rules defining conditions and procedures for entering the EU in particular with respect to labour migration.
Such a move has never really been a priority for Member States and has become even less important due to the crisis. But EU governments will not be able to keep ownership over admission policies forever. Firstly, they are committed under the Lisbon Treaty to adopt "common" asylum and immigration policies. As long as legal migration issues are not fully dealt with at EU level, the common policy is incomplete and left standing on one leg. Secondly, maintaining national policies within a developing single European labour market is inconsistent. How can the EU attract the migrant workers it needs, and will increasingly need due to demographic developments, if admission rules are different from one state to the other and if the freedom of movement within this labour market remains restricted? Thirdly, establishing common rules would not mean losing sovereignty. Even if admission conditions are harmonised, Member States still have the final say in deciding on admission applications. Finally, the current external policy should give "mobility", a meaning which goes far beyond short-term visas. Legal and labour migration should become a priority in current discussions with third countries. Opening channels of legal migration should offer new perspectives for third country nationals who would be able to engage in a project which would benefit them, their families, countries of origin and EU Member States.
Building a clear, open and attractive EU admission policy is crucial in order to overcome the EU's future challenges and to prevent people from taking dangerous routes where their lives are put at risk and their dignity ignored.
Now that the tears are dry, it is high time for the European Council to act and define a broad new policy direction, which can help to avoid shameful deaths at the EU's external borders.
This EU migration policy should address issues which have been neglected, especially legal migration. It also requires a broader approach, including not only foreign policy but also other EU policies with potential impact on the movement of persons, such as trade, development and agriculture. EU leaders should also recall that asylum and immigration policies and rules should fully respect human rights. Finally, EU leaders must remind that solidarity is one of the Union's main building blocks. While some states are on the frontline vis-à-vis external borders or asylum procedures, others are less under pressure as they do not have to deal with large numbers of migrants or asylum seekers. As a matter of solidarity, they should do everything they can to help their partners and to contribute to achieving common goals, among which granting protection and saving lives are a priority.