, by Jules Bigot

Photo by Jules Bigot

Weeks go by and look just the same. In the mouths of our political leaders, exiles are no more than figures and statistics. On our television screens, the focus is no longer fighting against the extreme-right’s political agenda, but rather on demonstrating the utmost toughness on migration matters. Meanwhile, in opinion polls the anti-immigration extreme right continues to grow, with European elections just a few months away. So, what is going on in Europe? How did we lose these humanist principles that we were up until now proclaiming? In this article we explore the trends at work in Europe on migration matters that tend to undermine our humanism.

Growing externalization of migration management

The first trend that can be observed is the growing externalization of migration flows management by European countries. This policy consists in delegating to third countries the rescue and the hosting of asylum seeks, as well as the processing of their applications.

Italy is a keen practitioner of this method, having recently signed an agreement with Albania providing for the construction – with Italian funding – of two facilities to receive asylum seekers rescued in Italian waters. These facilities – which should open in spring 2024 – will operate under Italian jurisdiction, with the Albanian authorities solely responsible for the external security of the building (i.e. making sure that no migrants escape).

The United Kingdom is also a champion of externalization. Since 2022 its conservative governments have relentlessly tried to send asylum seekers arrived illegally in the UK to Rwanda to have their applications processed there, following an agreement between the two countries. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) opposed this agreement in June 2022 and successfully prevented a plane from flying asylum seekers to the East African country. Then, in November 2023 the UK Supreme court ruled that the agreement with Rwanda was illegal, stating the country could not be considered as safe for asylum seekers. Stubbornly determined to get rid of its migrants, the British government is now trying to have Rwanda recognized as a safe country by law, so that the deal can go through.

Austria is an admirer of this British externalization model, and recently signed an agreement with the Home Office to replicate it. This takes place in a context of toughening of Austria’s immigration stance, as its leader try to form a coalition at EU level to toughen the bloc’s migration policies.

Given that the EU is ultimately the sounding board of its member states, this externalization principle has found its way in European legislation and lies at the heart of the currently adopted Asylum and Migration Pact. Among other things, this text provides for the addition of a “mandatory border procedure to quickly assess at the EU external borders whether applications are unfounded or inadmissible“. Since the 2015 “migration crisis“, the EU has not been shy in externalizing the management of its southern borders, signing agreements with countries such as Turkey, Libya, Tunisia and more recently Mauritania, which call for increased efforts to combat illegal immigration in exchange for financial compensation.

These externalization practices nonetheless raise big questions regarding the protection and respect of human rights, as they put the result ahead of the method, giving free rein to abuses. And indeed, the countries with whom these agreements are signed are regularly pointed out for their violations of human rights.

Tunisian security forces were for example accused in July 2023 of forcefully taking hundreds of migrants from the city of Sfax to the desert region bordering Libya and Algeria. NGOs reported deaths of thirst during these events which followed hateful comments by Tunisian President Kaïs Said about sub-Saharan populations, leading to a wave of violence against migrants. In the meantime, the enslavement of migrants by criminal groups is a common place in the unstable post-Khadafi Libya. Libyan cost-guards are also accused of ramming and shooting at migrant boats, and of using violence and intimidation against them during rescue missions. Finally, there are questions regarding the respect of international conventions when processing asylum applications in third countries such as Rwanda and Albania.

Given the numerous reports of human right violations committed by these countries, it seems surprising that the EU signs externalization deals with them. By doing so, the European countries and the EU are not only disregarding their human rights obligations, they are also putting the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of exiles at risk in the hands of untrustworthy third-country security forces

A gradual restriction of exiles’ rights in Europe

Alongside the externalization process described earlier, another trend is at work in Europe: the gradual restriction of exiles’ rights. This strategy, which is being implemented by many European governments, is based on the belief that tougher living conditions for exiles in our countries will slow down migration flows to Europe, by discouraging them to come.

Denmark is the leading European country in this regard. For several years now, it has pursued a highly restrictive migration policy, which has been coupled with a strict conditionality of social benefits for exiles, and limited access to Danish nationality for them. According to researcher Thomas Gummertoft-Hansen, Denmark is seeking to display worse welcoming conditions than its neighbors with the hope that this will dissuade exiles from coming.

Although France claims to be the “birthplace of human rights“, it is also adopting an approach restricting the rights of migrant populations. Following a proposal from the government, the French parliament recently passed a very tough immigration law, which proposed to reintroduce the offence of illegal stay, to make social benefits conditional to the length of residence in France, or to require foreign students to pay a deposit to ensure that they leave French territory at the end of their studies. A large part of these provisions were censored by the Constitutional court, but their initial adoption nevertheless reflects a clear shift of the French political landscape away from humanistic values. The text that was finally promulgated still includes harsh measures such as the reduction of categories of foreigners protected against deportation, the limitation of rights for foreigners arriving in France, or the weakening of the stability of residency permits. In another move to make France less attractive to exiles, the Interior minister Gérald Darmanin announced his intention to put an end to the “jus soli“ right on the island of Mayotte (French department in the Indian ocean).

Sweden’s 4 parties coalition also tries to show strictness on migration matters. Since 1 November 2023, the government requires work permit applicants to justify a salary of SEK 27,3600 (compared with SEK 13,000 previously), which represents 80% of the median Swedish salary, in order to obtain this permit. In addition, all work permit applications must now be made before entering the country, otherwise people risk deportation. These measures are designed to make it harder for foreigners (and exiles) to enter and live in Sweden, and thus discourage them from coming.

Far from being useful tools for curbing migration flows to Europe, these different measures simply contribute to the growing marginalization of migrant populations in Europe. By organizing this marginalization, European governments are once again failing in their human rights’ protection obligations and putting the lives of exiles at risk. These strategies moreover fail to take into account the fact that the attractiveness of countries is not what drives migrant populations to move to Europe. Exiles come because of the helplessness of their situations in their home countries.

From this overview of current migration policy trends in Europe comes a question: where has our humanism gone? Humanism, this attachment to human rights, seems to have been sacrificed by our leaders on the altar of political considerations. European leaders hope that by adopting the strictest possible migration policy, they can deprive the far-right of precious votes. But this dangerous race with the far-right overlooks the importance of migration for Europe’s economy and demography, and confirms the shift in the European political spectrum towards the far right. Constantin Cavafy concluded his poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, which describes the anticipation by an imaginary community of the arrival of “barbarians” (who never arrive) with these words:

“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.“

These words strikingly echo the current situation in Europe, where exiles have become useful tokens in the electoral strategy of European leaders. But in this evil game, we are all losing: the exiles, of course, whose lives are being endangered by these policies, but also the protection of human rights in Europe, which are being undermined. In the increasingly divided and violent world in which we live in, it seems more important than ever to unite ourselves around human rights and the protection of human lives. These human rights and humanist principles should be the only considerations guiding our European migration policy.

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