“They are arriving because they have no choice”

Interview with Catherine Wollard, Secretary General of ECRE

There was never a “refugee crisis” as media and politics tried to make us believe. Yes, Europe is in a crisis, but it was not one that came with the refugees. The refugees made the problems more visible than they had been before and yet, it is them who face the resentment. We talked with Catherine Woollard, Secretary General, of ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exile), about their work, the humanitarian situation and the untapped potential of refugees and migration.

Please describe the work and goals of the European Council on Refugees and Exile.

Woollard: ECRE is an alliance of organizations that defends and promotes the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced persons in Europe. We have 102 member organizations in 41 different European countries. It shows how interested and active NGOs are on because it is the highest number we´ve ever had. Our work covers four areas: litigation, research, advocacy and communications. We communicate with external audiences and with policymakers and opinion-makers, and we also target the public, but not the general public. We focus on those with an interest in refugee rights and try to mobilize them. We can reach about 200,000 people. The idea is to get people who support us and who care about refugee rights to act. We are not trying to convert or change the minds of people who are not persuaded, because we are just a small organization, and we are not the right ones to persuade the uncertain people. So we focus on mobilizing those who are already convinced to take action.

Do you expect changes after the European elections?

Woollard: Yes, we are hoping for some changes in policies and the approach of this issue. Since 2016, the focus of the European Union and many European countries has been to prevent people from arriving in Europe. We hope that after the elections there will be a change to a more balanced and realistic policy where Europe accepts that it has a responsibility for refugees and improves its policies on wider migration questions.

Is it only a hope or a realistic hope?

Woollard: I think it’s a possibility and hope; it’s a question of choice for political leaders. We see some positive signs. The panic and the crisis approach that has taken place has abated. There is an understanding that dealing with this issue as a crisis contributes to people feeling scared, and this contributes to the rise of extremist parties. So there is an understanding that it’s not helpful to be in a panic about migration and refugee arrivals. It is also a positive sign that some of the really unrealistic ideas like getting other countries to process European asylum claims or to host even more refugees than they are already doing, are not being promoted as the answer like they were before.

There are also a lot of negative developments with the general trend being to prevent people from arriving, through closing up borders and also through creating a hostile environment within Europe. Again, there are some signs that the damaging impact of a hostile environment in Europe is understood.

On the other hand, there are lots of risks. One of them is that the European parliament changes in terms of its composition. The parliament has been extremely important in defending the right for asylum in Europe. If we see a notable increase in the number of extreme nationalist members of the parliament, then the positive role of the parliament might be at risk.

When the first waves of refugees arrived, something amazing happened – They were welcomed and people showed a lot of support.

Woollard: This was something really positive that we saw all over Europe. There has been a huge response from civil society, including organized civil society, NGOs, but also volunteers, people in local communities, also professionals working in their spare time, lawyers, doctors, firefighters, others, who have been willing to offer their time, give their assistance and to welcome refugees arriving in Europe. We see that continuing. One of the challenges now is that governments are trying to crack down on and in some cases even criminalize the work of the society in creating a welcoming culture. We see the activities of our members and other organizations in a number of countries in Europe being outlawed or attacked or otherwise threatened.

Can you go deeper into this?

Woollard: We have member organizations in Hungary for instance where there is a general crackdown on civil society and it is focused on organizations involved in migration and refugee rights. Some of the proposed laws by the Hungarian government eventually cripple organizations. The latest proposed laws make any kind of support to asylum seekers essentially illegal. So for instance giving a leaflet to an asylum seeker with information in it, giving legal advice, all of those activities are considered against the law and the punishment includes a prison sentence.

In other cases we see the situation of humanitarian assistance becoming problematic. However, if you are providing food or housing that should be based on needs not on the migratory status and particularly in the cases of the worst kinds of destitution. We know that there are people who may be in an irregular situation but still might need to receive support.

Then a well-known example is the search and rescue situation, where the activities of NGOs in the Mediterranean has been made illegal or impossible, depending on the country. There was at one point around ten search and rescue organizations operating and now we have seen that has been reduced and there are questions even about the few remaining ships being able to be deployed. The reason why search and rescue by NGOs are necessary is because of the cutbacks in state and EU search and rescue efforts.

This is against basic human rights.

Woollard: I think a lot of things that are going on are against basic human rights. The situation in The Mediterranean is a humanitarian emergency, but it is a humanitarian emergency that has been taking place for more than 20 years in one form or another. I think it’s become particularly difficult with the Italian government that was elected last year which chose to close ports to rescue ships, including at one point the Italian Coast Guard itself being prevented from docking.

I think, more generally, we see violations of the human rights of people on the move taking place all across Europe. That might be something like the failure to rescue people or the failure to disembark rescued persons, but it’s also in things like the increasing use of detention. We also see unfair asylum decision making, which may introduce human rights problem such as not having the right to a fair hearing. Then things like cutting social assistance as a punitive measure becomes a human rights question.

Some of those restrictions are based on the belief that it is necessary to create a hostile environment so that people don’t come. The whole argument is based on the false assumption that people are coming through by choice. In fact, what we know is that the whole of the majority of people who are arriving in Europe are people who are fleeing from conflict or violence. There are not choosing to come because of generous assistance. They are arriving because there is a record number of people who are forcibly displaced, and they have no choice. So one of the reasons why policymakers are convinced of this hostile environment issue is that they think there are pull factors bringing people to Europe, but we argue it is about the push factors that are pushing them out of their own countries.

What can a solution look like?

Woollard: We put forward a four-point alternative to the status quo and to some of the restrictive forms that have been proposed. The first point is to have a functioning asylum system in Europe. It’s not impossible to make asylum work in the richest and best organized and most developed part of the world.

Having a functioning asylum system means having a fair responsibility sharing mechanism, a fair solidarity mechanism to deal with the reception and decision-making problems, which are among the reasons why people move from one European country to another. Those kinds of problems should be best resolved by supporting compliance with standards not through punishing people arriving.

The second point is to have safe and legal channels so that people can arrive safely, and they don’t have to take traumatizing journeys across sea and land to get to safety.

The third point is for Europe to work at the global level to tackle the causes of forced displacement. Unfortunately, we have seen European foreign policies used to prevent migration, to prevent movement of people instead of looking at the causes why people are forced to move. There is a lot of potential for Europe to play an important role.

The final point is the inclusion of those who are in Europe through access to their rights, including their rights to education, employment and so on. Even if you have a small number of people in a situation where they are denied the right to be included, where they are marginalized, these are things that help generate public fear and lead to the political success of extremists for instance.

When we look at the people who get displaced, there is a lot of potential that is left untapped.

Woollard: We do hear increasing discussions about the great resource that people on the move can constitute for Europe. One of the things we argue is that the real crisis is the demographic crisis. This is something that for some countries in Europe is an existential threat: the future of these countries is at risk because of population decline based on the factors we know about, including increasingly low birthrates and sometimes emigration, with the public in a number of countries more concerned about people leaving than they are about immigration.

That demographic crisis could be reduced by a sensible inclusion of many of these people who are now either trying to reach Europe or are in Europe but treated in a problematic way, which means its difficult for them to plan their future. In addition, there have been severe restrictions on legal migration opportunities for people who don’t need asylum, for people who want to migrate perhaps temporarily, perhaps longer term but for economic reasons and professional reasons. Some of these people have no chance to arrive in Europe legally. It would be to Europe’s benefit to have legal migration opportunities for different categories of people.

I think in multiple ways, refugees and migrants are people who have a lot to offer, and it would be in Europe’s interest to try and find a long-term solution based on allowing legal entry and inclusion afterward.

What do you expect for the upcoming years?

Woollard: The real question is how mainstream leaders decide to respond, and they have the option to move to a more realistic and rights-based approach to this issue and to stop absorbing the politics of the extremists. That kind of strategy only makes the extremists stronger — it doesn’t make them go away. I think if we have politicians, public officials and opinion-formers who are willing to take a calm and rational approach to the issue of refugee rights and the wider issue of migration, then things could turn in a more positive direction.

What kind of crisis are we talking about when we talk about refugees?

Woollard: What happened in 2015/16 is a political crisis. It wasn’t a refugee crisis because the number of people arriving was such that Europe could and should have managed. What we saw instead was an extraordinary and unnecessary political crisis. Some of the existing conflicts among European political leaders and between different European countries and some of the different views that have been already been turned into a paralyzing political crisis.

The idea of the crisis was also exploited by those who wanted more dramatic measures seen taken. They were able to take advantage of the sense of crisis. I think the crisis framing also meant that things happened that were rather undemocratic. There was believed to be a justification for restrictive measures that reduced rights and that was justified because of presenting the situation as an emergency. It’s important to try to avoid slipping back in into that sense of panic.

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