The EU’s Migration and Asylum Pact is another lost opportunity

The EU's Migration and Asylum Pact is another lost opportunity

The new EU Migration and Asylum Pact means that more people, families and children fleeing wars, extreme poverty and increasingly, climate disasters, will now be treated as prisoners by the European countries which so often claim the high ground when it comes to respecting human rights and liberties.

(AFP/Ben Stansall)

Anyone who believes the European Union’s new Migration and Asylum Pact will increase solidarity between member states, or with people escaping conflict or hunger, does not know the meaning of the word. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has consistently opposed this package of measures and will continue to campaign to limit the worst impacts.

This Pact means that more people, families and children fleeing wars, extreme poverty and increasingly, climate disasters, will now be treated as prisoners by the European countries which so often claim the high ground when it comes to respecting human rights and liberties. It is a classic example of double standards, betraying the EU’s moral and legal obligation to respect the right to international protection. It will inevitably lead to more abuse of fundamental rights, to illegal pushbacks, detentions (including of children) and returns to unsafe countries.

In the absence of safe and regular pathways, people seeking safety or better livelihoods are forced to take ever more dangerous routes, resulting in 2023 being the deadliest year on record since 2015. In the Mediterranean alone, more than 2,500 individuals were reported as dead or disappeared last year, a figure that is only the tip of the iceberg. The Pact fails to address this, and instead continues to reinforce ‘Fortress Europe’.

It will certainly do nothing to help working people. More money will be wasted on building Fortress Europe at a time when the EU is about to bring in new fiscal rules that would impose cuts to social and climate spending through austerity 2.0.

Regularising immigration status would do more than any other measure to help working people, both migrant and local, by stopping employers from exploiting irregular migrant workers to undercut wages. Denying undocumented, migrant workers and protection-seekers their human rights only benefits employers who use them as cheap labour, sometimes under shocking conditions, thereby creating divisions between workers and lowering pay and standards for all.

All workers must be treated equally

The ETUC demands that asylum-seekers should have the right to work in all member states. Trade unions and employers should work together to ensure decent employment conditions, essential to building solidarity between workers and equal opportunities and treatment for all. The ETUC has demonstrated that access to work under equal conditions, and the ability to claim employment rights, are crucial to obtaining fundamental rights, including citizenship. The ETUC supports its members in organising all migrant workers, including asylum-seekers, refugees and undocumented people, and empowering them through union membership to take part in collective bargaining and joint action. All workers, regardless of immigration status or nationality, must be treated equally, with respect for their universal human rights.

Through its European Partnership for Integration, the European Commission has acknowledged the key role trade unions play in labour market integration. The ETUC has pledged to continue campaigning for all migrants and refugees to have the right to work, collective bargaining, labour market integration based on the principle of equal treatment and access to services and social protection.

Instead of building walls in a futile attempt to deter desperate people, the EU should be offering regular labour migration channels to enable migrants to live and work, with a common, well-funded system for welcoming and integrating them into host societies.

As the Commission has acknowledged, migration is – and has been throughout human history – a fact of life, and as conflicts and extreme weather events multiply the numbers of people seeking refuge in Europe will only increase. In 2022, the Commission reported some 1.08 million non-EU citizens irregularly present in the EU, a rise of 59 per cent compared with 2021. But that figure is undoubtedly an underestimate, with real numbers reaching several millions. Undocumented women in particular have no right to protection from gender violence under EU law, and risk deportation if they seek justice. According to the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) there are tens of thousands of women in Europe whose immigration status is given priority over their needs as victims.

The EU has been ‘outsourcing’ its responsibilities to third countries where migrants have no guarantee their rights will be respected. The ETUC has condemned this policy. It protested, for example, to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about the recent EU-Tunisia partnership agreed with a government that has cracked down on trade unions, migrants and civil society. Yet similar deals with Mauritania and Egypt are to be followed by Morocco and Libya.

Far from guaranteeing European solidarity, governments can pick and choose what to apply, and states like Hungary and Poland have already expressed reluctance. Member states will be able to opt out of key safeguards if they claim a third country is pushing people to their borders (so-called “instrumentalisation of migration”). Even the heralded EU Resettlement framework is voluntary, so will do little to relieve the pressure on the frontline countries where refugees are arriving. And member states will have an excuse to neglect their legal obligations under international accords such as the 1951 Geneva Convention.

The Pact seeks to bolster Fortress Europe through a massive strengthening of the capacities of Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency, turning away or detaining arrivals regardless of their valid claims to residence (e.g. on medical or family reunification grounds). People who appeal can be deported while waiting for a decision. It will encourage cruel and illegal pushbacks that are already happening. It threatens humanitarian search-and-rescue operations that save lives at sea, contrary to international maritime law. Surveillance will be stepped up, through forced collection of migrants’ biometric data and fingerprinting, with little respect for human rights.

The ETUC condemns the populist politicians and parties who, for their own interests, stir up racism, hatred and xenophobia, blaming migrants and asylum-seekers for the problems their policies are incapable of resolving.

Such attitudes have formed the framework allowing the Pact to garner support, and the measures proposed may exacerbate discrimination and suspicion of migrants, potentially strengthening the far-right in Europe.

Earlier this month, on the day before the European Parliament voted its approval, 161 human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Picum, warned against adopting this “shameful” Pact. According to Save the Children, it will lead to the detention and criminalisation of families and children, who may be deported without legal representation or appeal.

Migration into Europe could be managed with compassion and respect for universal human rights. The ‘migrant crisis’ should not be a crisis at all. But this Pact fails to show the courageous leadership required. The ETUC reiterates its call for a political approach that promotes universal human rights, prevents suffering and exploitation and fosters genuine solidarity and shared responsibility.