Once again, the European Union is experiencing a migration crisis. As was the case in 2015, it is mainly still the same migration policy crisis – a failure of the European Union to deliver a migration policy based on burden-sharing, respect of fundamental rights and solidarity.
Five years on, Member States have still not been able to agree to a fundamental overhaul of their approach for a genuine and comprehensive European policy for migration. The deal signed with the Turkish government in 2016 has proved fragile and, once again migrants are the victims, trapped on a geopolitical chessboard, caught between a Turkish government intent on using the situation to its own political advantage, a set of 27 EU Member States which are unable or unwilling to move forward, and EU institutions with little immediate powers to address the situation on the ground. This puts tremendous pressure on the countries and the local and regional authorities on the EU’s southeast borders.
In late February and early March, around 20,000 people gathered along the Greek border, apparently lured there intentionally by false information that they would have access to the EU. Now they find themselves stuck in terrible conditions in a buffer zone between Greece and Turkey. Similar numbers attempted to cross the sea from Turkey to the nearest Greek islands. The already rapidly deteriorating living conditions, due to unacceptable overcrowding in the closed centres where migrants are held on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos have now got even worse and have caused severe tensions with locals.
The outbreak of coronavirus has turned such centres, but also the buffer zone between Greece and Turkey, into a health time-bomb. The failure of EU member states in the past years to agree on a permanent relocation scheme and to develop a comprehensive policy on humanitarian protection, asylum and migration, has made the situation in many parts of Greece utterly unsustainable.
With the first reported case of coronavirus on the island of Lesbos, it is vital to act now in order not to add a public health crisis to an already existing humanitarian crisis. The present situation in Greek camps makes it impossible to adopt any kind of social distancing. The hygiene and healthcare situation in the camps was already dreadful before the pandemic, and with the recent tensions many aid organisations have had to withdraw staff from the islands. Local and regional authorities are therefor left completely to their own devices to cope with this crisis.
The PES Group shares the concerns expressed by the Chair of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar (MEP of the S&D Group from Spain), who, in an open letter to Janez Lenarčič, the EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, has underlined the outmost need for immediate actions and the evacuation of the most vulnerable groups from the closed centres on the Greek islands.
Moreover, if the European Union does not deliver quickly and boldly on migration policy, it is likely that a deep crisis of trust in the European Union and democratic governance as such will add to an already existing humanitarian crisis. The inaction of Member States is causing tension not only at the borders, but also within the host communities, whose members are disappointed at the absence of effective European solidarity.
Speaking at the PES Leaders meeting ahead of the 20 February European Council, Fofi Gennimata, Leader of the Movement for Change (KINAL), the Greek PES member party, pointed out:
“Greece is going through a test which concerns all of Europe. […] What we urgently need is the immediate decongestion [of our islands], effective border controls and, of course, the fair allocation of asylum seekers amongst all Member States. Measures must be taken immediately, now, before it is too late for everyone. The far-right is spreading across Europe”.
Ζητώ την στήριξη των Σοσιαλιστών για να δοθεί ένα τέλος στο δράμα που βιώνουν τα νησιά μας.
Δήλωση κατά την προσέλευσή μου στην Προσύνοδο των ηγετών του Ευρωπαϊκού Σοσιαλιστικού Κόμματος – @PES_PSE #kinima_allagis #EUCO #MFF #PESLeaders pic.twitter.com/btym3wBrKt
— Fofi Gennimata (@FofiGennimata) February 20, 2020
To avoid the mistakes of the past, the European Union desperately needs a new pact on migration and asylum. Member States and regions on the EU’s external borders cannot effectively address the challenge of the recent migratory waves by themselves. That is the reason why a substantial revision of the Dublin regulation must be approved as a matter of urgency, including a permanent, mandatory, relocation scheme between Member States.
The PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions has repeatedly called for a substantial increase in funding from the existing budget instruments dedicated to migration (notably the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund). We also call for a boost of the allocation to migration and asylum funds in the next MFF. This increase should also be used to strengthen EU agencies such as Frontex, EASO and Europol, but EU funds must also be made available and directly and easily accessible to the most affected local authorities.
Following the clashes at the Greek border, the European Commission has decided to commit 700 million euros in financial assistance, along with the deployment of more Frontex guards to “shield” Europe’s external borders. However, long-term solutions are urgently needed. Turning FRONTEX into a federal border and coast guard agency, endowed with the necessary means and power to assist Member States on a permanent basis has to be part of this approach. Yet the EU cannot just close itself in on itself.
The COVID-19 crisis is showing once again that the world is interconnected – for ill and also for good. In parallel to addressing the pandemic, the EU therefore must work on a comprehensive migration policy which involves all Member States in providing humanitarian protection to refugees according to all Member States’ international obligations and the EU’s own values and fundamental rights. Such a policy must also foresee realistic and safe ways for legal migration to benefit both countries of origin and host countries. Moreover, it must involve substantially increased solidarity and cooperation for sustainable development with countries of emigration across the world.
As progressive local and regional leaders from all around the EU, we are convinced that Europe has to act now to stop a humanitarian crisis to turn into a social and a public health one. Our firm belief is that solving the migration issue must be one of the EU’s top priorities.