Amnesty: Europe’s response to Syria is ‘pathetic’


While the Syrian refugee crisis rages, and migration is at the top of the EU’s human rights concerns, Amnesty’s Salil Shetty visited Brussels to call on EU leaders to take action. “Europe’s pledge of 14,000 places for resettlement and humanitarian admission of Syrian refugees is not a serious one,” Shetty said in an interview with EURACTIV.

Salil Shetty has been at the head of Amnesty International as secretary general since 2009. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Laurens Cerulus.

You met with presidents Barroso and Van Rompuy, as well as commissioners Reding and Malmström during your visit. Are you satisfied with what was said during these meetings?

There was a general recognition that are concerns – migration, refugee crises or human rights – were important, but of course, there is always a ‘ping-pong’ between member states and institutions: both argue that protection and action is the competence of the other.

Still, many of the people I met with do recognise the challenges and the need for Europe to get its house in order. 2014 is a key year of change, and a chance for the EU to do so.

Just last week, the UN commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, urged EU countries to boost resettlement measures for Syrian refugees. How do you expect governments to respond?

With regards to Syria, the response has quite simply been pathetic. Europe has been at the heart of the Syrian crisis in that it has been very engaged from the outset; it initially supported the fight for freedom and human rights, and since then it has provided a huge amount of humanitarian aid, for which I am sure the people of Syria are very grateful. But the reality of the situation is that a total of almost 9 million people have been internally and externally displaced, with 2.3 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced people.

In the face of that scale of crisis, Europe’s pledge of 14,000 places for resettlement and humanitarian admission is not a serious one. Moreover, 17 of the 28 member states have offered no places at all, for example the United Kingdom.

Are European countries and the EU really failing the Syrian people?

In terms of the provision of aid, and humanitarian support in camps, Europe has played a role. It has also been active in seeking a political resolution, including through the Geneva process. But Europe and the international community as a whole disregarded the early alerts that Amnesty International and many others put in front of them on the need to take action.

No one can predict what would have happened, but one can hazard a guess that earlier action would probably have avoided the deadlock, dangerous and costly situation of today. And with regard to the question of refugees, I repeat: yes, European governments are failing the Syrian people.

The issue of migration and asylum is on the agenda of the Greek rotating presidency of the EU Council. The Task Force Mediterranean, created in October 2013, aims at coordinating European member states’ responses to crises. What are your hopes of policies becoming more effective in tackling the issue ‘on the ground’?

My overall sense of migration policy in Europe is that it is focused far too much on controlling borders, and on protecting European interests and security – and not enough on the rights of those approaching the borders, or who are already at it. Such an approach has led to very serious human rights violations for many people, and thousands of lives lost.

Since the Lampedusa tragedy, which at the time seemed to be a sort of wakeup call for EU leaders, we have unfortunately mostly seen meetings and rhetoric. With respect to the Task Force recommendations [of last December], the focus continues to be one of border controls and deterrence. And so in practice nothing has changed on the ground.

No matter how high we build our borders, people will always try to find a way to escape conflict and poverty. The European Union (EU) urgently needs a migration policy and practices that are fully compliant with both EU and international human rights obligations, and that put people and lives first. And we are a far cry from that.

We are now heading towards a change of guard in the EU institutions, after May’s elections. How do you evaluate the human rights scorecard of the incumbent European Parliament and Commission?

Europe has contributed to human rights protection, for example through its role in achieving the Arms Trade Treaty [in April 2013] or its work in line with our campaign to end female genital mutilation. Its concrete external human rights action plan has led to increased engagement and impact abroad.  

Yet, there are significant human rights concerns which the EU and member states are unwilling to properly address, and that puts a stain on the EU’s role as a human rights actor. Take for example the systematic discrimination across Europe of many of the 8 to 12 million Roma – the single largest minority in Europe – or the failure to meet human rights obligations with respect to migration.

So for every positive step it makes, its failure to protect migrants and refugees, Roma and minorities, and victims of torture is causing a key credibility gap for the EU.

What will be, according to you, the greatest human rights challenge for the next EU Commission?

Well, first the current Commission has some time to go, still. We shouldn’t dismiss what it can still achieve.

Overall, the challenges we face inside Europe’s borders are unlikely to go away. And human rights violations related to conflict countries also won’t go away. The countries might change, but conflicts will remain. If we take CAR for example which was on this week’s Foreign Affairs Council agenda, the EU and member states have a central role to play in ensuring human rights are at the centre of any missions.

The big challenge will be to see how the EU can build a backbone to take on the emerging economies like China or India. Or even traditional partners such as the US, which has its own human rights challenges such as Guantanamo and the death penalty.

Can the EU stand up to these players and ensure trade doesn’t trump human rights? That will be the defining question. 

(Photo credit: Center for Strategic & International Studies)

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