On 22 June the ‘Diversity Europe Group’ of the EESC organised a conference entitled ‘Civil Society Organisations Helping Refugees and Migrants in Europe’. The event took place in a hybrid format with some Members and speakers participating in person, whilst others connected remotely.
The event sought to illustrate the pivotal role and daily challenges faced by civil society organisations in helping refugees and migrants. The conference also sought to re-focus political attention on the topic and to offer a forum for discussion between civil society and the EU Institutions, particularly in the context of EU recovery and reconstruction, post COVID-19.
Within this context, in the first panel civil society organisations from four countries (Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic and Sweden) were invited to present their practical experiences in helping refugees and migrants upon their arrival, travelling across Europe and integrating into EU Member States. In the second panel, the European Commission and the European Parliament were represented respectively by Mr Michael Shotter, Director at DG Migration and Home Affairs and by Mr Erik Marquardt, Member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (Greens/EFA, Germany). The European Migration Forum was also represented through the Bureau Member Ms Rossella Nicoletti (EUROCITIES).
The participants were welcomed by Mr Pavel Trantina, Vice-President of the ‘Diversity Europe Group’, who recalled that 20 June was ‘World Refugee Day’. The Vice President highlighted that the contribution of civil society organisations to helping refugees and migrants has been essential over the last few years and noted that many of these organisations are represented by EESC Members. Mr Trantina also stated that the EESC, principally through its annual Migration Forum, provides a space for exchanges between CSOs representatives.
The necessity to better fund civil society organisations using EU post COVID financing was evoked by Mr Metzler, President of the ‘Diversity Europe Group’, who also recalled that there are some 80 million refugees globally, most of whom live outside the EU. The President stressed that it is imperative to assist countries of origin, notably in Africa, in order to reduce the motivation of individuals to migrate to Europe. Mr Metzler also highlighted that those who do migrate to the EU must respect European rules and values, in particular those relating to women and other religions.
The civil society organisations in the first panel (Iliaktida AMKE from Greece, Arci Rome from Italy, Czech Refugee Help and Refugees Welcome Sweden), explained the extent and complexity of their work. For example, the provision of material assistance, social and medical services, education, help in the search for employment and housing, volunteering at border areas, integration etc.). They subsequently referred to the difficulties in their daily work, including the necessity for more efficient legal instruments to rapidly recognise the diplomas of migrants and refugees and restrictions to family unifications.
Similarly, the significant problem of criminal smuggling networks running the borders and police brutality were referred to. Speakers insisted on the importance of coordination among civil society organisations and with public administrations, as well as on the limbo situation for many unaccompanied minors. Finally, several speakers stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic had severely worsened the situation of migrants and refugees, as the closed borders had made these persons even less visible, whilst blocking their movements. Moreover, the possibility of finding a job in order to maintain temporary residency in EU Member States was now very low.
In summarising the discussions of the first panel, Mr Trantina recalled the challenges facing these actors in their daily work, including lack of respect towards refugees and the organisations helping them, inadequate infrastructure, educational and psychological support, an absence of clear guidelines by Member States and excessive bureaucracy. Lack of funding and smuggling networks at borders were also among the key obstacles facing civil society organisations.
The crucial role of civil society organisations in providing innovative solutions and in ‘filling in the gaps’ was highlighted by the representative of the European Commission, who also praised the work of the European Migration Forum. Mr Shotter outlined the financial assistance already provided by the EC for the reception of asylum seekers and integration, and expressed his support for local integration strategies provided by actors such as EUROCITIES. The EC Director called for migration to be included in the EU’s social and economic recovery post COVID-19 and recalled the EC Communication dated 16 April 2020 entitled ‘COVID-19: Guidance on the implementation of relevant EU provisions in the area of asylum and return procedures and on resettlement’ (C(2020) 2516 final). In his closing remarks, Mr Shotter stressed that a political decision on the topic of migration and refugees is necessary. He added that the subject should be approached with a European spirit, using European values and a stable, modernized system, at the same time as recognizing the contribution of migrants to European societies.
In turn, Mr Erik Marquard, MEP, commended the work of civil society organisations in difficult conditions and often without the support of Member States. The MEP called for greater transparency in EU funding and for the European Parliament to exert parliamentary control over EU funding in the field of migration and asylum. Mr Marquard also emphasised that policy and practical issues on this topic should be addressed together and structured dialogue reinforced.
In closing the conference, Mr Séamus Boland, President elect of the ‘Diversity Europe Group’, recalled the high human cost of migrants trying to reach Europe and the importance of social cohesion, respect for their dignity and solidarity towards them. Mr Boland referred to the many EESC Opinions on the topic of migration and refugees and called for a rational, fact-based discussion at the European level. In closing the conference, the President elect stated that the ‘Diversity Europe Group’ would continue its work on this subject and cooperate with the EU Institutions and Member States, in order to address the issues raised by the civil society organisations active in this field. For further information and presentations from the conference, please see the web page of the event.