Key messages on EU migration strategy from 11 fact-finding country visits and 180+ meetings with Civil Society organisations active in the field.
Persecution, conflict and poverty drove more than one million people to seek safety in Europe last year. Significant numbers went missing or died (most drowned) making the arduous journey. The majority who reached Europe made their way across the Mediterranean, arriving mainly in Greece and Italy. For those who survived, arrival in Europe has rarely meant the end of suffering and harsh conditions.
As part of its reflections on EU migration strategy, the EESC published a report based on fact-finding country visits and meetings with more than 180 stakeholders, mainly from civil society organisations actively working with refugees and migrants. The report was presented during the EESC’s March Plenary session, in the context of debates on the EU’s external policy and migration with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos.
In order to identify the problems and needs and share the best practices of various actors in the current refugee crisis, EESC delegations visited 11 EU Member States (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden) in December 2015 and January 2016.
EESC President Georges Dassis remarked on these visits: “The EESC will be channelling the observations and key messages from the fact-finding missions towards EU institutions to fulfil our obligations to European citizens and their organisations but also our responsibilities to humanity.”
EESC’s Vice-President for Communication Gonçalo Lobo Xavier stated: “Civil society organisations are playing a major role in the various phases of the asylum process. However, we need to do more – smugglers, robbers, corruption and violence, severe weather conditions, closed borders, poor reception conditions and increasingly hostile citizens are just some of the difficulties encountered by the men, women and children seeking refuge in Europe. Following the fact-finding missions, the EESC is now better prepared to contribute to the resolution of the refugee crisis and to policies for the integration of refugees.”
Pavel Trantina, President of the EESC's Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, underlined: "It is due to the extraordinary mobilisation of civil society organisations and volunteers in several Member States and their unequalled role that a humanitarian disaster has been largely avoided. We wanted to give them a voice at the EU level, as their role is often underestimated and they face difficulties and sometimes even hatred."
Through its commitment to giving a voice to those working in the field, the EESC presented to Member States and EU institutions several key messages for addressing the refugee crisis:
Reduce the number of (irregular) arrivals – The sheer number of people arriving in a short period of time and the fact that most of them make their way to Europe via irregular channels needs to be tackled. Effective external border controls are a crucial precondition, but securing borders must not mean shutting out those who need protection for humanitarian reasons. Registration at Europe’s external borders must be obligatory and Frontex should play a bigger role in it. Refugees need safe, regular routes to come to the EU; deaths, human rights violations and exposure to smuggling and trafficking must be prevented. Taking the mandates of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and Frontex into account, the EU should do more to coordinate humanitarian efforts and ensure a larger presence on the ground.
In the countries of origin, emphasis should be placed on the rule of law, human- and social development and security offering real prospects for local populations, especially young people. The EU should support refugees in the countries neighbouring conflict zones – Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have taken the biggest share of the refugees. These regions should see more investment in relief and development initiatives, including those undertaken by civil society organisations, which improve the situation of displaced populations. Information campaigns should dissuade economic migrants from risking their lives trying to reach the EU. Returnees’ stories should serve as a deterrent and to counter the biased information being spread by smugglers.
Receive and assist refugees in a humane way – Civil society deplores the absence of a common EU approach to managing the large influx of refugees and lack of a properly-functioning common asylum system. The Dublin system is not fit to respond to this massive flow and must be reviewed. The EESC recommends that a genuine common European asylum system is completed, based on the protection of human rights, solidarity and shared responsibility. It should include uniform criteria for asylum protection to help end “asylum shopping”, as well as a fair distribution of refugees. Insufficient government responses leave room for unscrupulous people to take advantage of refugees left to fend for themselves. The European Commission should make sure that all Member States comply with EU asylum legislation, in particular the Reception Conditions Directive.
Better support for civil society organisations – Civil society organisations (CSOs) have played a major role – often filling the gap left by national and regional authorities – in various phases of the asylum process, including meeting refugees’ primary needs, providing accommodation, information and social and psychological assistance. However, CSOs sometimes compete with each other for resources or to meet quotas, which can undermine the overall value of their services. It should be easier and faster for them to obtain EU funding. The EU should also arrange for good practices to be shared and replicated among CSOs, and used more effectively in policy-making.
Change the narrative – Public support for welcoming refugees is a prerequisite to reverse growing negative sentiment, and the public needs to receive fact-based information on refugees through media and CSOs. The issue of refugees has to be de-politicised and Member States must ensure that there is no discrimination between organisations based on political loyalty or preferences. Positive examples of migrants’ achievements should be publicised, as well as their contribution to the economic, social and cultural life of Europe. Refugees should be seen not as a threat but as an opportunity for Europe’s economic and social model; growth and job creation help counter hostility against refugees. Successful refugees must be visible as role models and the EU should support the exchange of good practice in this field. Member States need to strengthen multicultural and anti-discrimination education in their school curricula.
Ensure the integration of refugees – Sustainable, long-term integration policies covering skills screening and recognition, education and training, including civic education and language courses, need to be applied as soon as possible during the asylum procedure. Refugees should abide by the laws of their host country and also need to accept its culture. This includes respecting gender equality and female staff in positions of authority, such as teachers, doctors, social workers, etc. To that end, Member States should provide funding for guidance and mentoring; exchanges of good practices among countries are vital. Due account needs to be taken of the concerns of the local population.
Integration begins with language training but can only be achieved through labour market integration. Obstacles to finding sustainable employment include loss of personal certificates, the non-recognition of diplomas and qualifications, on top of the lack of job opportunities in countries with high unemployment. Member States should involve CSOs and, in particular, employers and trade unions, as well as regional authorities, in the design of integration policies, not least to ensure that refugees develop the skills needed to fill specific labour market gaps. Member States should get asylum seekers into work as quickly as possible, to avoid skills obsolescence and to allow them to become self-sufficient and economically productive.
Notes to editor