The EU’s core values are at stake in the migration crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A child behind bars at a refugee camp in Slovenia. [Trocaire/Flickr]

Our governments’ failure to act on the migration crisis is destroying the European Union and undermining our core values. This is not the Europe we dreamed of, writes Madi Sharma.

Madi Sharma is a UK member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

I am very much ashamed to be European listening to stories of how EU countries are forcing migrants into rivers up to their necks to get them off their territories and pushing them off into other member states; hearing how accession countries are profiting from the transit of migrants through their lands; seeing barbed wire fences constructed overnight between EU member states long connected by the Schengen agreement. It looks like we took down the Berlin wall and replaced it with barbed wire fences across Europe. This is not the European Union we all dreamed of. 

As part of a delegation of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) we visited Slovenia to review the migrant and refugee camps there. It was touching to observe the actions of volunteers and communities in Slovenia supporting the transition of refugees through their country. Nevertheless, it was extremely disturbing to receive the repeated pleas of those assigned with the difficult task of organising and maintaining the refugee camps in the country requesting that the leaders of the European Union collaborate and find a long-term solution to the continuing problem. Their inability to make decisions is leading to increased tensions between member states, creating conflicts among their citizens and adding further insecurity for the migrants.

Under the long-established 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its additional Protocols, a refugee’s right to claim asylum is essentially elevating to a fundamental human right under international law. But the number of people claiming Asylum is minimal compared to the actual numbers entering Europe. Many of those crossing the borders are economic migrants, and no evaluation of their situation or nationality has been carried out. Indeed we heard many stories of Moroccans, Algerians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Afghans just looking for opportunities to enter Europe. The asylum process is lengthy, resource intensive and complex, and deters any member state from encouraging people to register as asylum seekers. This challenge must be addressed immediately because the phenomenon will only escalate. This winter, an average of 1,000 to 2,000 people are crossing the Slovenian border every day. At the height of the influx last year, these numbers exceed 10,000 a day and are expected to climb again as the weather improves.    

Only a token effort at registration is taking place within the hurriedly established, yet efficient, transit centres. And this raises concerns regarding security and the entry of extremists and terrorists. Earlier in December of 2015, for example, authorities in Pakistan discovered a network of women who were spreading ISIS ideology, an indication of the appeal that the terrorist origination has among the educated middle classes. The same people could potentially attempt to cross borders into Europe. Data sharing between EU states is poor and not helped by the manipulation of information by the migrants themselves along their route. This often results in the return of some migrants back and forth across the same borders and it is this frustration which ultimately leads to tensions in the camps.

Whilst treated as humanely as possible, with care and compassion, the refugees are “processed” through facilities which are inadequate for the sheer volume of people. Sanitation and washing facilities are minimal, and sleeping and dining provisions are inadequate.

Whilst politicians within the “Brussels bubble” only restrict themselves to rhetoric and ethical speeches, the volunteers, NGOS and local communities continue to make the passage of migrants and refugees through countries like Slovenia as welcoming as possible. But without doubt, the service of unpaid volunteers is not sustainable and a solution needs to be found to have sufficient and fairly compensated human resources regularly deployed at the camps. The NGOs have repeatedly stressed that they will run out of funding within the next few months, forcing them to stop their operations, while the financing for local governments also needs to be addressed.

The EU institutions need to remain close to the situation and this was indeed an important initiative from the EESC, to be further expanded to another 11 member states that are feeling the strain of the migrant crisis. The other EU institutions should follow suit. Europe needs to show solidarity. Its leadership should move beyond words into real world actions that will see the burden lifted from those countries which by geographical hazard find themselves on the front line and shared equally.

We should not have allowed the situation to get so far. The EU is built on dignity and respect of people. Yet we seem to be moving towards a situation of self- destruction where member states’ inability to work together is leading to the fragmentation of Europe. I have always been a proud European; a citizen of a strong economic, social and cultural block strengthened by its democratic principles and fundamental rights. This is the vision we need from our leaders and this is the legacy we need to leave for the next generation of Europeans.

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