World Refugee Day, a reminder for EU leaders that reforming the migration system is urgent

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

"Refugees should not be seen as a threat but as an opportunity for Europe’s economic and social model." [Shutterstock]

Millions are fleeing war or persecution worldwide. As we commemorate their strength and courage on World Refugee Day, we try to be calm quoting the record high number of 68.5 million displaced people – 3 million higher than the total population of the UK – 25.4 million refugees, 40 million internally displaced and 3.1 million asylum seekers, writes Luca Jahier.

Luca Jahier is president of the European Economic and Social Committee.

Five countries account for more than half of the world’s refugees: Syria (6.3 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.4 million), Myanmar (1.2 million) and Somalia (986,400). But these are just a small numbers if we compare to the anticipated climate bomb which is supposed to displace up to 250 million people.

The numbers are striking and I personally cannot help but wonder: how long will it take international leaders to realise that we must work together and fairly share our responsibility towards refugees? How long will it take European leaders to realise that the Union’s own survival is at stake with the migration and refugee crisis?

It does not take long to act once you put two elements together: humanity and responsibility. These two elements have built the European Union and now they seem to be at risk.

The recent Aquarius incident in the Mediterranean demonstrated that the migration issue lies at the core of many divisions in Europe. The EU has achieved a lot over the past couple of years (fewer deaths at sea, fewer arrivals, stronger external borders, closer cooperation with third countries), but Aquarius has reminded us that our work is far from done. No one believes that it is the responsibility of the Italians, Maltese or the Spanish.

Europe’s largest migration crisis since the Second World War and the concerns of citizens about further uncontrolled migratory flows have highlighted the importance of a joint approach in the fight against illegal migration and of securing the EU’s ability to act.

Raising fences and building walls is not an option. We need to work together because migration requires a coordinated European response involving all member states.

Next week, EU leaders will meet in Brussels to discuss migration and the reform of the Common European Asylum System. The Parliament has taken a courageous stance in proposing changes to the so-called Dublin rules. More procrastination will exacerbate divisions. Failing to reach an agreement is not an option.

MEPs hope to break deadlock on migration reform

Reaching a common EU response to the long-running migration crisis has been painfully slow. Ministers remain deadlocked on plans to reform the so-called Dublin Regulation that sets out the EU’s common migration and asylum rules.

In our house of civil society, we have agreed that the only way to solve the crisis is by taking the humanitarian approach, the only right antidote to the xenophobic national discourse that plays on the perceived threat posed by “irregular migrants”.

Migrants are human beings with exactly the same fundamental rights as EU citizens, who must be respected and protected irrespective of the person’s legal status.

We should be concerned that intolerance, racism and xenophobia towards migrants are on the rise in Europe. The xenophobic attitude of some member states should be condemned as it is contrary to the fundamental values of the EU. It is most worrying how migration is used as a populist tool for political gains.

Refugees should not be seen as a threat but as an opportunity for Europe’s economic and social model. Sustainable long-term integration policies covering skills screening and recognition, education and training should be put in place to stimulate the economy.

Our house is currently drafting an opinion on the costs of a hypothetical disappearance of all third country nationals from the EU.

The focus will be on the economic cost, including the effect on employment and growth, and social and cultural cost, analysing the role of migrants in different sectors of the economy and of society, including their net involvement in social security and welfare systems. This would help build awareness of the positive impact migrants have on cultural diversity and practical economic life.

The time has come to use cultural intelligence rather than plain rationality in crafting an asylum reform that reconciles firmness with solidarity. Fair distribution of migrants via a humane, coordinated and shared EU response is the only solution to save lives, uphold rights and preserve European unity.

The refugee and migration crisis is an epochal drama for Europe. If EU leaders fail to deal with it, Europe risks an irreparable political demise.

Verhofstadt threatens to take Council to court for 'failure to act' on asylum reform

The European Parliament debated the priorities for Europe on Tuesday, ahead of a crucial EU summit due on 28-29 June. Among those priorities, the reform of the Dublin regulation seems the most pressing and MEPs urged EU leaders to find an agreement on the asylum system.

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