Over recent months, the Mediterranean has seen a tragic succession of shipwrecks claiming the lives of migrants and asylum seekers.
In one of the latest disasters, this week another 35 people lost their lives.
In total, at least 22,000 migrants are estimated to have died trying to reach Europe since the beginning of this century.
It is an unspeakable humanitarian disaster, largely caused by the policy of controlling and securing borders.
Yet the argument that has long dominated migration policy in Europe – whereby if Europe lifts its border controls it will be flooded with foreigners – does not hold water.
Most people do not, in fact, want to leave their country, and amongst those who do, most do not have the financial means. Many of the migrants reaching France are, for this reason, highly qualified and are part of the middle classes in their countries of origin.
Europe’s political community and society as a whole needs to bring about a Copernican Revolution in their way of thinking, and to realise that the arrival of migrants to a country, far from being a burden or a catastrophe, can represent an opportunity.
First of all, history shows us that opening borders does not, in fact, lead to a flood of migration.
For instance, between 2004 and 2007, when ten former Eastern bloc countries, with much lower living standards than Western Europe, entered the European Union, the 100 million inhabitants of these countries who had acquired the right to free movement could have emigrated en masse to the West, but they did not: only four million Eastern Europeans have left for another country since 2004 and many of them go back and forth.
Moreover, a recent analysis of the European Commission reveals that migrants from Eastern Europe have by no means been detrimental to the economies of Western European countries.
Today, in the face of Europe’s economic crisis and demographic decline (especially in Germany and Italy), which threatens to bring about a fall in the active population by 2030, immigration could be a real asset, helping to stimulate economic activity and to pay the pensions of the baby boomers.
By paying taxes in their host countries, migrants could also contribute to lightening the debt burden of these countries.
The one million-plus migrants who have arrived in Europe since January 2015 could find their place in European Union countries, where many homes lie empty: they could, for example, revitalise the economic and social life of the many small towns and rural areas being abandoned.
In the United States, in deindustrialised cities that are being depopulated, such as Detroit, political leaders have launched pioneering initiatives designed to attract migrants: repopulating Detroit with Syrian refugees is a perhaps utopian yet generous and pragmatic idea proposed by American researchers.
Towards a universal ratification of the UN Convention
To change the European Union’s mindset and attitude towards the migrants rejected at its borders, we would do well to follow the recommendations of the United Nations: in 1990, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, a very forward-looking, progressive text that is far too unknown.
This Convention, which entered into force in 2003, states that all migrant workers, whether regular or irregular, have the right to the same basic freedoms and the same legal treatment as the nationals of the country in which they find themselves.
It also states that they cannot be subjected to measures of collective expulsion and have the right to the same social protection and the same pay and working conditions as the citizens of the country concerned.
This Convention is the most ambitious international treaty to date concerning migrants. At a time when the number of migrants is growing and the violations of their rights are multiplying, it represents a legal instrument with great potential utility.
Unfortunately, the Convention has only been ratified by 48 states thus far. It has not been ratified by a single EU country or by the United States.
The state parties to the Convention are above all emigration countries, such as Mexico and Morocco, who worked hard to have it adopted. For these sending countries, the Convention is a way of protecting their citizens abroad. Promoting and popularising this Convention, to press states to ratify it, is essential in the current context.
The UN appointed a Special Rapporteur on migrants’ human rights in 1999, with this aim in mind. In 1998, a global campaign led by international organisations and NGOs was launched to promote the ratification of the Convention on migrants’ rights.
Then, in 2006, the UN General Assembly held the first High Level Dialogue on International Migrations and Development. The second Dialogue was held in 2013. Also in 2006, the UN Secretary-General set up the Global Migration Group, bringing together several UN agencies around this issue.
It is essential that the steps taken by the UN and its agencies be supported and taken further, by reaffirming the right to migrate as a human right – as proclaimed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and that we envisage a genuine opening of borders. Far from being invaded, Europe would profit and gain greater momentum.
It is also crucial that refugees be allowed to travel by plane, yet European Union Directive 2001/51/CE of 2001 imposes sanctions on airlines allowing them to do so, effectively privatising refugee protection.
No one has forgotten the photo of the drowned child Alan Kurdi, which created a global shockwave. Little by little, public opinion was moved by the plight of the Syrian refugees.
Fortunately, during the course of 2015, the European Union started to make progress on the issue, driven by Angela Merkel, who decided to welcome a significant number of refugees to Germany.
Several other European countries finally followed suit, such as France, which welcomed its first refugees in September 2015.
Still we have to reckon with the xenophobic reflexes of a population invariably lured by the search for scapegoats for the economic crisis and Islamist terrorism.
European opinion on refugees remains deeply divided. It is the role of associations, the UN, and progressive intellectuals to bring about a change in mindset.
This article has been translated from French.