Mar 21 2016

Europe’s Human Rights Crisis

By Natasha Saunders

thFidelity to one’s principles is measured by how they are honoured in times of crisis. Hannah Arendt – a refugee who fled Nazi Germany and became one of the most influential political thinkers of the twentieth century – showed us how European states, supposedly built upon a foundation of human rights, deserted their principles with disastrous effects when faced with an influx of rightless refugees in the 1930s. Her insights, published the same year as the UN Refugee Convention was opened for signature, are eerily prescient. This week the EU and Turkey finalised a deal that would see blanket returns of irregular migrants to Turkey, and a resettlement programme for Syrians – but not Iraqis, Afghans, or Eritreans – who stay in Turkey and do not try to cross into Europe, implemented on the basis of a “1-Out-1-In” mechanism. In exchange for acting as Europe’s migration policeman, Turkey will receive €3 billion in aid, the possibility of visa-free Schengen-zone travel by June, and “reenergised” EU-Accession talks. Following the serious concerns expressed by rights groups when the possibility of such a deal was first announced, EU leaders claim to have inserted safeguards into the deal that will ensure that it complies with international and EU law. But rights groups and UNHCR are unconvinced.

The problem with EU professions of fidelity to human rights and international obligations in this particular area is that Europe has a long history of trying to get out of its obligations under the Refugee Convention, and an equally long history of, to all intents and purposes, criminalising the seeking of asylum – an act which is not a crime but a basic human right enshrined in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The EU-Turkey deal should not be seen as exceptional episode but, rather, as the latest policy in a long-running series of attempts to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers and irregular migrants reaching European territory. These policies began in earnest in the 1980s once international travel became cheaper and travel routes opened to people fleeing wars and rights abuses in Africa and Asia. European asylum systems, which were not designed to deal in an efficient manner with large volumes of applications, quickly became backlogged and costs spiralled. But rather than attempting to reform the structure of asylum systems, European states decided instead to conflate asylum with irregular economic migration, and implement restrictive policies designed to prevent, reverse, and deter arrival.

Among the measures implemented to prevent arrival were visa requirements for people from countries considered to be “refugee-producing”; airline carrier sanctions which fined airlines for transporting individuals without appropriate travel papers into the territory of a European state; and the interdiction of boats thought to be carrying migrants at sea, to prevent the individuals on board from reaching European territory and lodging an asylum claim. For those people who managed to get around these non-arrival policies, a range of measures designed to reverse arrival, or shift responsibility for these arrivals onto other states, were implemented. Safe third country arrangements were signed with states on the periphery of Europe, which would allow returns of irregular migrants, including asylum seekers, if it could be demonstrated that they had transited through and could, theoretically, have lodged an asylum claim there. Within Europe, the Dublin Regulations permit responsibility-shifting among European states, enabling those in the north and west of the continent to shift the majority of the burden of examining asylum claims and providing protection onto the southern and eastern states. These policies have proven to be rather ineffective both at preventing arrival and ensuring the efficient functioning of asylum systems. But they have also been partly responsible for the creation of the image of a “genuine” refugee as a person who seeks physical safety and little else; and for whom the exercise of choice and the desire for a real life, and not just to be alive and living with difficulty, is illegitimate.

For those whose arrival could not be prevented or reversed, campaigns to reduce the protections they were afforded in a bid to deter future arrivals were the next stop on the journey. Across Europe asylum seekers have been denied the right to work while their claims are processed, leaving them no choice but to be reliant on minimal state welfare – perpetuating the image of the refugee as an economic burden. As the asylum issue became conflated to a greater degree with security throughout the 2000s, the detention of asylum seekers became more and more common. The UK, for example, currently has no time limits on immigration detention, and detention centres have frequently been criticised for the appalling conditions in which people, whose only “crime” has been the exercise of a basic human right, can be forced to live. When faced with no other option than to examine an asylum claim, the Refugee Convention itself became the next target. Highly questionable interpretations included restricting “persecution” to only those actions of state authorities and not non-state actors, or refusals of claims which included violations of socio-economic rights. Ultimately, none of these policies seems to have had the desired effect. According to Eurostat, numbers of asylum seekers have risen progressively throughout the 2000s, although the numbers still pale in comparison with the numbers of displaced people elsewhere in the world. This latest attempt to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers in Europe is unlikely to work any better, and is instead more likely to drive ever more people into the arms of people smugglers.

There have been improvements in some of these conditions. The recast Qualification Directive of 2011 raises the standard of the protection offered to those who are not eligible for refugee status but who are still in need of international protection; and individual states have had to scale back some of their more restrictive policies. But it is arguably the intervention of rights groups and the bringing of cases to the European Court of Human Rights, or to domestic courts, that deserve the credit for reminding control- and prevention-oriented states not only of their human rights obligations, but of the fundamental role that human rights are supposed to play in every aspect of European life.

But the EU, it seems, is suffering from selective amnesia. It wasn’t so terribly long ago that Europe was a prime refugee-producing region and it was Europeans running for their lives – both in the 1920s to 1950s and then again in the 1990s. The rest of the world resettled a great many of these earlier refugees, and we all know what happened to those to whom our doors were slammed shut in the 1930s and in the mid-1990s. Ultimately, this deal has very little to do with respecting the human rights of any of the people trying to reach Europe, or any of the millions more who are not. But, in their negation, human rights are indeed central to this deal. Not only does the violation of the human rights of refugees undermine the protection of refugees everywhere, but also undermines the strength and force of human rights for everyone. And ultimately it undermines, perhaps fatally, the entire European project. Our most basic and dearest principles have turned out, once again, to be not quite so dear after all.


Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics

Natasha Saunders teaches at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on forced migration, human rights, and political theory. She is the author of “Paradigm shift or business as usual? An historical reappraisal of the ‘shift’ to securitisation of refugee protection” in Refugee Survey Quarterly.

Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

The International Politics of the Refugee Crisis

Can the EU be hospitable?

Fortress Europe: Cause or Consequence of Europe’s ‘Migrant Crisis’?

Syria’s Refugees: When did the West Become so Heartless?

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2 Responses to Europe’s Human Rights Crisis

  1. James Baxter says:

    I was going to respond more fully, but Robert Orsi has largely done the job for me, with his eloquent argument.

    I would briefly like to cite the example of Yemen, a country I have watched closely in recent years. In the 1960s it’s population was around 3 – 4 million. It is now over 25 million. It has been riven with violent conflict throughout its history. However I believe the most recent civil war has as much to do with overpopulation as it does with a failed kleptocracy and rampant tribalism. Unlike the Syrians, it’s long suffering people have nowhere to go, hemmed in by their GCC neighbours. Water is fast running out, and they inhabit land that can only support a tenth of the current population.

    The chaos and suffering in Yemen and Syria is but a foretaste of what will afflict many overpopulated and poorly governed countries across the Middle East, Africa and Asia in the years to come. Do you think Europe has the capacity to continue absorbing this number of people, many from cultures that are still highly tribal, less educated, intolerant of women’s rights, gay rights and religious freedom, let alone basic HR?

    And whilst you loftily preach about the sanctity of HR, you forget that we, as humans, need to survive as a species on a warming planet with finite resources. Having travelled to many developing countries I fear for the future of the many often wonderful people I have met. Countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq will bear the brunt of this unsustainable surge in population. Europe and the West can only do so much and sustain so many, until the out-of-control population growth of humans is brought under control.

  2. Roberto Orsi says:

    The core of the problem is the collapse of the “modern(ist) world” under the weight of an immensely burdensome “humanity” nobody really wanted, and nobody knows exactly what to do with. A certain constellation of simplistic ideas about progress in political and social affairs is facing the grim prospect of a complete debacle.
    Enlightenment is the human emancipation from self-incurred minority through reason. However, the management of humankind as a complex system, particularly from the second half of the twentieth century, has been irrational at best. While most authors have been debating the rationality of HRs arising from various theoretical foundations, eventually drafting lists of rights which became longer year after year (and still do), very few people wondered about the rationality of the very act of creating more and more humans at breathtaking pace, no matter what. Because of some kind of group-think induced distortion, rationality is to be applied only after a new human is conceived, not before. The production of new humans has been completely neglected as an object of rational enquiry and scrutiny, with the exception of some marginalised environmentalists (and Chinese leaders). That means, one of the core pillars of politics (political demography) has become a taboo. The effect is that, instead of producing a better humanity (as Enlightenment thinkers wished), the modern world has focused overwhelmingly on the self-defeating task of producing a larger and larger humanity. World population has been adding 1,000,000,000 people every 14 to 15 years in the past few generations. Albeit slowing down, still 100,000,000 people are added to this world every 18 months. Syria, a desert country with very limited resources, had a population of 4.8 millions in 1960. Only two generations later, in 2011, they were 22 millions, a 358% increase. The collapse of the Syrian society has been just a matter of time. Then, of course, you have foreign intervention. But the stage has been set by structural conditions. The Syrian case is not the exception, unfortunately, it is the rule. Egypt: 86 million people on a single river in the middle of a desert, projected to double again in the next decades, they were 20 millions in 1950. Pakistan’s population was about 36 millions in 1947, it is now over 195 millions and projected over the 270 million mark in 2050. Pakistanis grow at the fantastic pace of 3,7 million people every year, a new town of 10,000 souls per day.
    A rational discourse would link population to resources and other socio-political factors, and act consequently (however, now it is too late). Instead, the tacit presupposition of most of today’s humanitarian discourse is “here is 100,000,000 more people, each of them endowed with many inviolable rights, someone must take care of them. In 18 months, there will be another group of 100,000,000 humans”. How can this end, if not in tragedy? The current European refugee crisis is not even the beginning. We still have not seen anything of what will come out of the severe population/environment unbalances in the Middle East and elsewhere.

    Against this background, it should be clear that the past and current HR regime on refugees suffers from material and political unfeasibility. The so called “European values” are toast. They have never been a particularly smart theoretical construction, more an escamotage to make specific policies immune from criticism by declaring them as indisputable “values”.
    The history of the twenty-first century will be the history of a planetary politico-demographic disaster unfolding from now over the next few decades, and of the struggle to save at least certain areas of the planet from chaos, if possible. Europe, the West and other will certainly change their currently unsustainable ideological posture. Walls are already rising everywhere, but it is just the start.

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