Europe needs to become a safe haven for refugees and migrants

10 December 2020
Europe needs to become a safe haven for refugees and migrants

When there is nowhere to go, nowhere is home,” reads the film poster for Human Flow, a 2017 film co-produced and directed by contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei documenting the global migration and refugee crisis and its profoundly personal human impact. The film began as a personal journey to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015, where he saw refugees as they arrived on shore and began the trek to find safety in Europe. WeiWei, who himself had to flee his home country back in the 1960s, was profoundly touched by this direct experience of human struggle: "I realized that Europe was refusing those who were most vulnerable and needed rescue… and avoided bearing any responsibility. The refugee crisis “had become a political tool wielded by populists and right-wing movements all over the world, including in Europe.”

Half a decade later and in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, Lesbos becomes once again the symbol of a Europe that is not up to the challenge. The image of the devastating fires in the Moria migration camp last September are yet another shameful chapter of Europe’s failed migration policy: Instead of solidarity and shared responsibility, we witnessed a reaction by national governments based on self-interest, defensive reflexes and isolationism. “We know there are cities and regions throughout the EU willing to do more to relocate asylum-seekers so what are we waiting for? National governments should listen to their calls and show that European solidarity is not an illusion. This is not just a question of fulfilling a moral obligation, but about respecting fundamental rights ”, so the comment of Socialist and Democrats Vice-President on migration Kati Piri.


COVID-19: When there is no place to stay at home

The impact of crises on migrants and refugees has rarely been stronger felt than in the past months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrants are among those vulnerable groups who become much easier exposed to the virus, as they live often in over-crowded conditions where basic services such as access to health care, water, sanitation and nutrition are hardly available. Many of them work in the informal economy, lacking proper social protection and are more likely to lose their job. The already precarious situation of women and girls has worsened too, as they face higher risks of exposure to gender-based violence, abuse and exploitation. In addition, migrants risk also being stigmatized by populists as carriers of the virus. Moreover, lockdowns and border closures have left thousands stuck in transit: For them, there is no place to stay at home

Despite these enormous challenges, many migrants have been vital in coping with the pandemic and keeping our societies functioning – be it in the healthcare sector, agricultural production, delivery of essential goods or research.

The COVID-19 crisis “presents us with an opportunity to reimagine human mobility for the benefit of all while advancing our central commitment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind ”, underlined the United Nations' Secretary-General António Guterres. In other words, it gives us the opportunity to rethink our values, and to re-narrate the stories we tell about who we are and to whom we are indebted. Even if the most contentious aspects of migration - that is, the issue of solidarity between Member States receiving migrants and the distribution of asylum seekers arriving on the European soil - has been unresolved since long before the pandemic, hopes are high that after the “urgency-for-solidarity-lesson” COVID-19 has taught us, there could be a wave of renewed solidarity also in this area.


Progressive cities and regions: Setting the sails for solidarity

COVID-19 has showed us in many ways that solidarity is often best put into practice through concrete action in our cities and regions. Migration is no exception here. Progressive mayors and regional leaders from the four corners of the continent showcase positive examples of reception and integration of migrants and refugees, and promote diversity as an integral part to building inclusive cities and welcoming communities, where no one is left behind. 

Salvatore Martello, Mayor of Lampedusa and Linosa (Italy) and Mike Schubert, Lord Mayor of Potsdam (Germany) are two of those local politicians who pave the way for a more humane migration and integration policy on the ground.

With a population of only 6500 inhabitants, Lampedusa represents the first landing place for migrants that leave North of Africa. The island's reception center can accommodate 196 migrants, but it is not uncommon that on certain days some 1,000, or even 1,500 people land. “Migration flows must be ‘managed’, one cannot think of ‘stopping’ them. The question is how. I am asking for a major commitment towards the border territories. If we want to have a society where human beings live in solidarity, we need more support for our local communities , underlined Martello speaking at the December PES Group meeting. 



To broaden the understanding of the complex phenomenon of migration, which according to Martello “is simplified all too often by a narrative that reduces everything to the number of landings ”, Lampedusa is also coordinating the European co-funded project Snapshots FromThe Borders, a network involving some 35 border local authorities and civil society organisations directly facing migration flows at EU borders.

More than 2000 km further north, Mike Schubert has taken up the challenge for more solidarity from a different perspective. As co-initiator of the movement of German towns “sichere Häfen” (“safe harbours”) founded in 2018, he calls upon the national government to welcome more asylum seekers than the central government’s quota system allows, including from Moria. Under the quota system, Potsdam would receive only about three refugees. Schubert has offered to take in roughly one hundred. Similar pledges to receive hundreds, and even up to 1,000 migrants and refugees, have been made across Germany.  In November, the Berlin Senate went even a step further, taking to court the Federal Minister of the Interior, who had banned the admission of further refugees during the summer.

“The situation in migration camps is inhumane. All over the continent, cities have shown that they are ready to show more solidarity. People don't speak enough of opportunities to integrate, which is a misunderstanding of the EU's migration policy ”, pointed out Schubert.

The call by Martello and Schubert is clear: We urgently need a common European system based on humane reception conditions, fair procedures, genuine solidarity exercised through responsibility sharing, partnerships on an equal footing with third countries, legal pathways and effective integration. Time has come for the EU to deliver on this.


A new European compass?

In September, the European Commission finally presented its much-awaited proposals for a New Pact for Migration and Asylum. Its first pillar consists of more efficient and faster procedures to determine whether a person is entitled to protection. The second pillar is fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity, through flexible contributions from the Member States, ranging from relocation of asylum seekers from the country of first entry to taking over responsibility for returning individuals with no right to stay or various forms of operational support. One core pillar of the pact is the Action Plan on integration and inclusion for 2021-2027, which includes tailored support for migrants and EU citizens with a migrant background to ensure equal opportunities of access to education, employment, health services and housing.

Even if the new Pact is a first important step forward, it leaves several important questions unanswered. This is also the message of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. “With only a few countries responsible for the majority of arrivals the status quo is neither fair nor sustainable. However, the new proposals only call for solidarity in specific situations. Solidarity has to be the rule, not the exception. The new concept of return sponsorships at best risks undermining the idea of genuine European solidarity and at worst translates divisions into policy with some countries taking their fair share of responsibility and others preferring to run away from that responsibility ”, underlines Birgit Sippel, S&D spokesperson on civil liberties, justice and home affairs.

The call for a mandatory solidarity mechanism is also emphasised in a recent plea of several Mediterranean countries in reaction to the firm opposition of right-wing Visegrad national governments, and also advocated by the Party of European Socialists.

From the point of view of progressive cities and regions, there is also a call for more ambition. “The 5-year deadlock between Member States on a common asylum and migration system had inestimable human cost. However, the new Pact should not be the lowest common denominator. We need a functioning system that respects human rights and the rule of law. A system of genuine solidarity, through equitable and proportionate share and responsibilities, fully acknowledging the role of local and regional authorities in migration, asylum and integration ”, underlines PES Group member Antje Grotheer, Vice-President of Bremen City Parliament (Germany), and rapporteur on the Pact for the European Committee of the Regions.

Time has come to put words into action, and cities and regions can play their part here. They must therefore be fully involved in the process and receive targeted support. What is more, as Grotheer emphasises, “Solidarity needs to be mandatory. Flexible forms of contribution cannot be an easy ticket for Member States to buy out their fair share of responsibility.”

This was also her main message to Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, who discussed the New Pact on Migration and Asylum with members of the European Committee of the Regions at their December plenary session.


Effective integration and inclusion of migrants in the EU is a social and economic investment, which makes European societies more cohesive, resilient and prosperous . “The new Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion is a useful tool in this respect and can greatly build on already existing forms of cooperation. However, in order to cover all stages of the integration process as it aspires to do, it must go hand in hand with the development of legal pathways to migration. More Morias are unsustainable, ethically blameable and go against our core European values”, Grotheer concluded.

The request that the Pact should recognise the essential role which local and regional authorities play in receiving and integrating migrants and make direct European funds available for these tasks is also reflected in the European Committee of the Region's resolution on the 2021 Work Programme of the European Commission.


In the same boat

As International Migrants Day will be observed on 18 December, let us go back to Ai Weiwei's account of what he witnessed in Lesbos. We must make sure that European action is not overshadowed by right-wing populists and their slogans. Instead, our action must be guided by the very nature of our community of shared values, which is solidarity: Asylum seekers and migrants deserve a common, humane, sustainable and fair European migration and asylum policy.

If building more sustainable, resilient and inclusive societies is the aim of our recovery after COVID-19, then making Europe a safe haven for migrants should be one of its flagships. Progressive cities and regions will do their best to shape the migration debate over the next months and are ready to send a strong message to the European institutions through the opinion by Antje Grotheer, to be adopted in March.

At the same time, they will continue to promote in their communities a better understanding of our collective responsibility to respect basic human rights and the right to protection for migrants. As Ai Weiwei rightly reminds us, “The border is not in Lesbos, it really is in our mind.”



Photo credits: Unsplash / Alexis Fauvet