FIDH: The year 2015 was marked by tragic events: thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean and millions of people stuck at the European borders. How would you summarise what happened this year?
Geneviève Jacques: This year reached unprecedented heights in tragic events the likes of which we have not seen since the Second World War. An extraordinary exodus due to extraordinary causes, with the Syrian war, the violence of ISIS and the dismantling of Libya.
We could say that there are two crises. First, the crisis that is forcing thousands of people to leave because of the intensification of the war in Syria, and the situations in Iraq and Libya. And secondly the fact that the countries of destination, which received most of the flows of people forced out of their homes, are completely saturated and that international aid for these refugees is totally insufficient, thus leaving these refugees in inhuman living conditions.
This population movement towards Europe is exceptional but only accounts for a small fraction, a mere 5% of the people displaced because of what is happening in the Middle East, a region located at the doors of Europe.
This is an unparalleled situation with tragic aspects that have not been seen before. Is this going to be a short crisis? No, because the causes of this displacement are not going to be resolved in the near future; neither the causes related to the geopolitical context of the Middle Eastern region, nor the deeper, structural causes of the violence that is pushing people to seek better lives elsewhere.
This is an therefore an exceptional crisis, but one that will probably not go away any time soon.
FIDH: Do you think that the European migration policy has failed?
GJ: Yes, and one of the factors that made this year so catastrophic is the response of the European countries to this exodus. We could call this a crisis in governance, a crisis that is resulting from the lack of a short- or medium-term vision on population movements. Because of this lack of vision, European countries were unable to foresee the arrival of such a huge number of migrants, and they were unable to agree on a way to receive and protect these migrants in a manner that complies with Europe’s values and commitments. And now they are unable to agree on anything but protectionist and repressive measures.
Germany was the one country that stood out and stood up to the challenge. Angela Merkel showed moral courage since she was supported by public opinion, and said, “No, we will not abide by the Dublin agreement and the provisions on closing our borders. We are going to welcome people who need protection. That is our duty.” Germany was the only country that said this clearly and did just that. But in the absence of European solidarity a clear imbalance developed between Germany and the other European countries. Now Germany is overwhelmed by the large number of people who arrived in such a short time. This makes reception conditions very difficult.
As for European policy, political decisions are actually taken by the Heads of State and Government. Some of them are terrified about the rise in populist and xenophobic movements; others sometimes represent these tendencies themselves. They have all blocked any possibility to develop a migration policy that can live up to the challenge.
This year, 2015, has shown, more than ever before, that Europe has to completely overhaul its policies especially on migration, asylum, and visas but also on its way of managing human mobility in this day and age.
Europe is concentrating on security measures to prevent people from coming in, without knowing what to do when they come in anyway.
FIDH: What would you recommend?
GJ: First, we have to get rid of a number of regulations that contradict the obligation to protect people. I am thinking especially of the Dublin agreements. Even though they are applied less and less, they are still problematic and represent a threat.
Secondly, a common asylum policy must be founded on the same basic principles as the ones set out in the Geneva Convention, in other words, the protection of persons who are not protected in their country of origin. This policy must be coupled with humanitarian measures that live up to the challenges of our times.
Finally, it is crucial that our governments and Heads of State pay heed to studies carried out by experts and academics on the question of mobility of people in the 21st century. The very idea of shutting off a continent like Europe is one that does not hold water. The idea is totally absurd in today’s globalised world. It is high time to formulate intelligent mobility policies particularly for neighbouring areas: Europe with the areas south of the Mediterranean and Africa.
Several thought leaders and intellectuals suggest shifting policies along these lines, yet government authorities continue with the same mindset as 50 years ago when migrants were seen as a source of labour. The issue of migration is different today.
At COP21, everyone agreed that climate change would cause major population displacements, with people leaving their country in order to simply stay alive. This thirst for life cannot be stopped by putting up barriers, not with Frontex. This is not being utopian, but simply being clear-minded about what must be done in the medium term.
FIDH: The EU recently considered setting up biometric border controls managed mainly by Frontex. What do you think about that?
GJ: This reflects the politics of our times. Priority is being given to security and control while the funds could be used to properly integrate tens or hundreds of thousands of people, who will become European in the future.
The EU has chosen security and is still confusing refugees with terrorists. The EU of course has to be careful about the threats of groups like ISIS, but we should not adopt policies that apply to millions of people while what we want to do is target very specific groups.
FIDH: Are you optimistic about 2016?
GJ: The only reason for optimism is that while xenophobic parties gain ground, people have also become aware of the dangers that these toxic ideas pose for our societies.
There is growing awareness that the responses to the migratory “crisis” and the way foreigners are welcomed are symbols of democracy. More people are becoming aware of the deep political stakes of population movements. We either want a closed society or an open society that establishes a harmonious way to live together. The second option, unlike the first one, opens up prospects for the future.
What prevents me from being completely pessimistic is that we see and we know that a very large part of civil society is ready to become even more involved in this battle. We are convinced that the politicians will not budge unless they are faced with a strong and determined civil society.