“Migrations, more than ever before, will play a pivotal role in the future of our world”. At present, however, migration is affected by the “loss of that sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters on which every civil society is based”. Europe, for example, seriously risks taking this path. Nonetheless, “aided by its great cultural and religious heritage, it has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to assure assistance and acceptance to migrants”.
Pope Francis Fratelli Tutti (40)
Until now it is fish and subsidies bedevilling our inglorious EU non-membership. But migrants are coming back in our news. They may soon be back in our ferries if Priti Patel has her way. It seems an age since 2016 when the spurious threat of the EU enabling millions of Turks to move to Britain was used to discredit free movement of people. But the burning of Moria refugee camp holding 12,000 people on the island of Lesbos brought the EU’s own internal crisis to a head. How should responsibility for migrants be shared?
Here in the UK, Government, Brexiteers and their tabloid advocates inhabit the echo chamber they created where asylum seekers and undocumented migrants seeking a better life are framed as a bi-product of criminal traffickers, or as mere numbers and migration itself as an ‘existential’ threat . A good year for the Home Office is when migrant numbers drop. A good story for the media in August this year was when 1,500 people in dinghies landed on the Kent coast, providing some colourful footage and a ‘crisis’ headline. Similarly pictures of Moria refugee camp at Mytilene in its grey abandonment and charred ruin, probably torched in despair – another Greek island we won’t be holidaying. But the fire also raised the question why responsibilities for migrants are not being shared amongst EU members.
Ending the free movement of people from the EU into the UK was supposed to solve problems not create them. But the need for workers from abroad with a range of skills has not gone away. The UK faces growing problems staffing social care, a persistent shortage of NHS medical staff, not enough brickies, and a lack of seasonal agricultural labour that has left produce rotting in the fields. Meanwhile Priti Patel as Home Secretary is formulating a harsh national policy against unplanned migration with no apparent concern for the wellbeing of future undocumented arrivals.
Unlike Britain which never had a Christian Democrat Party, much of the EU has been somewhat influenced by Catholic - and Lutheran - values. Amongst the EU’s smaller nations, many would point to the influence of the Irish as leaders in the life of the Commission and Parliament. Amongst the large nations Germany and France have dominated. The million, mostly Syrians, let in by Angela Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, are now beginning to contribute to life in Germany. Ursula Van der Leyen, a bilingual French-German speaker, veteran of Angela Merkel’s CDU cabinet, now President of the Commission is an exemplary product of this culture. ‘Saving lives at sea is not optional”, she said in her recent State of the Union address. “And”, making clear her other preoccupation, “those countries who fulfil their legal and moral duties or are more exposed than others must be able to rely on the solidarity of the whole European Union”.
Pope Francis often enters the fray promoting Christian values. Here he is talking to Jesuits about migrants in September 2016: “each of them has a name, a face, and a story, as well as an inalienable right to live in peace and to aspire to a better future for their sons and daughters”. They are “no different”, he said, “than our own family members and friends”. Perhaps it is because Catholics believe the Holy Family left their country as refugees fleeing Herod’s violence that the Church is in a polite stand-off with the fallen angels of governments and their policies towards migrants and refugees. Perhaps it is a simple matter of proclaiming Christian values.
But on migration, the EU Commission is failing to hold the line between concern for the human rights of the individual refugees and migrants against accommodation of the populist concern to keep them out. A concern which seems out of proportion to the actual amount of migration taking place. In 2019 some 4.7% (about 21 million) of the population of the EU were – already - legally resident non-EU nationals. The member states received 2.6 million new arrivals that year. Asylum applications were 698,000, down from their 1.28 million 2015 ‘crisis’ peak. There were only 142,000 illegal border crossings, compared to 1.82 million in 2015-2016. Yet 1,500 arrivals from France to our shores two months ago caused something akin to panic.
Bear in mind that migration retains its corrosive capacity to undermine the European project through arousing nationalist and populist intransigence. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has just lost a case taken by the Commission to the European Court of Justice on the detention of refugees on the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Czechs, Poles and Hungarians, accustomed historically to people coming into their countries as brutal and destructive invaders, have pulled up the drawbridge and are unlikely to budge. Their bishops, on the whole, have sympathy with their government’s reluctance to receive and integrate refugees despite contrary direction from the Pope. A fault-line in the EU is widening.
To deal with it, a couple of weeks ago, the Commission of the European Union produced a German-inspired policy proposal for member states, a New Pact on Migration & Asylum. It is a comprehensive document which deals systematically with migration, asylum, integration and border management. Despite protestations of concern for fundamental rights, and the principle of non-refoulement (the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to persecution), the goal of the proposal is to restore the crumbling cohesion of the EU by reducing migrant numbers.
The New Pact proposes that ‘processing’ at borders is to be made more efficient and speeded up with the aid of an expanded FRONTEX, the EU border and coastguard agency. States that don’t want to welcome refugees are given the option of taking responsibility for their removal from Europe. Proposing ways to increase the number of ‘returns’ (read deportations) is clearly a response to populist pressure. Attempts to warehouse people in third countries, on ferries, distant islands, anywhere they can be detained legally in limbo are set to continue.
The UN declared 2016 the deadliest year for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, 11,418 killed or injured. But deportations from UK, Germany, Greece, Sweden and Norway (with big differences in numbers sent back) rose between 2015 and 2016 from 3,290 to 9,460, many to Afghanistan and conflict zones. The figures do not indicate concern for the plight of returned migrants and failed asylum seekers. In response nine major Europe-wide Christian organisations set out a concise protective set of “Recommendations for Humane Returns Policies in Europe”. No sign of it having made any significant impact on the New Pact document though it must certainly have reached the Commission. Nor any sign in the New Pact’s management model of attention given to increasing opportunities for legal entry except possibly the future creation of a EU agency for asylum. Meanwhile The UK is formulating its own national immigration policy negligent in its provision for the welfare of undocumented arrivals, its inhumanity intermittently breaking cover.
The New Pact now has to pass through the EU structures. It deserves to be mauled in the European Parliament. Scores of reputable international organisations working with refugees have already condemned it. It tries to fulfil one value championed by Popes, that of ‘solidarity’, but solidarity between those privileged to live in the European Union. It ignores the Global Common Good. It is cruel and it won’t work.
See also TheArticle 02/10/20