We call them asylum seekers, refugees, migrants. They come from various countries and have lived through different experiences but all look for the same: a peaceful life.
The first European Migration Forum, jointly organised by the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), was held on 26 and 27 January at the EESC in Brussels. The Forum gathered inputs from national and international experts and top EU officials, but also testimonials from refugees and rescuers, who shared their real-life experiences and gave a face to migration flows, often wrongly portrayed in the media. Underlining the need for greater protection of asylum seekers and refugees coming to the European Union, the event, which brought together more than 200 participants, also discussed possible approaches to address people smuggling and human trafficking.
Opening the two-day event, Luis Miguel Pariza Castaños, Member of the EESC, stressed the "unique opportunity this Forum represents to listen to the views of civil society in preparation for the future European Agenda on Migration". A member of the EESC Permanent Study Group on Immigration and Integration, Mr Pariza Castaños added: "our challenge is to save people's lives, receive them and provide them with decent conditions. But are we offering them the optimal level of protection?" Praising the former Italian Presidency of the Council of the EU on its Mare Nostrum rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea, he said: "We live in a globalised world with mobility of capital, goods and services but it seems we forget people and their right to move to seek a better life".
"We need strong public opinion to support asylum systems", underlined Vincent Cochetel, Director of the UNHCR Bureau for Europe. "The sea is currently the last free border, and in the Mediterranean the vast majority of people crossing are fleeing war, persecutions and corruption. They are not economic refugees, as many tend to believe."
For Haakon Svane, representative of the Norwegian Shipowner's Association and Christian Remøy, seafarer "the number of refugees at sea has been unprecedented since the people escaping Vietnam in the 70's". Seafarers are in the front line and often confronted with humanitarian tragedies they are not necessarily trained or prepared for. "It is not important for us to know whether the people we rescue are refugees or not, they are first and foremost people in danger and it is our duty to help them", concluded both speakers.
Further to strong testimonials from Majid Hussain, who fled from Nigeria to Italy, and Milen Eyob, who left Eritrea for Sweden, the Forum broke up into workshops on access to asylum procedure at the borders, integration of beneficiaries of international protection, the fight against migrant smuggling and the need for adequate information in both origin and transit countries.
Irini Pari, President of the EESC Permanent Study Group on Immigration and Integration, stressed that "there is a need to look at the long term perspective on migration and develop a holistic approach: Europe needs to and can do more."
In conclusion, Henri Malosse, President of the European Economic and Social Committee said: "We can no longer wait and efforts should be shared between Member States now. The EU must react and must react very quickly. There is a real emergency. The word "illegal", when it comes to migrants, should be banned, it's unacceptable to use it to define people who simply want to live in security and peace. Europe needs to open safe paths for refugees because if these people fall into the hands of smugglers and traffickers, it is because we have failed to create a way for them. Asylum is not a privilege, it's a right enshrined in the principles of the United Nations." Mr Malosse added: "the EESC advocates for a common migration policy that is made in consultation with civil society."
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