Ursula von der leyen calls for unity

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Migrants packed tightly onto a small inflatable boat attempt to cross the English Channel near the Dover Strait, the world’s busiest shipping lane, on September 07, 2020.

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European countries must come together to address the issue of migration, the head of the European Commission said Wednesday, telling member states that “saving lives at sea is not optional.”

Addressing the issue of migration in her State of the Union address on Wednesday, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “migration is an issue that has been discussed long enough.” She called on the bloc to overcome “deep divisions” caused by the 2015 migration crisis and to pull together to help the member states most “exposed” to migration.

“Those countries that fulfill their legal and moral duties or are more exposed than others must be able to rely on the solidarity of others in our whole European Union,” she said.

Europe’s migration crisis of 2015 saw hundreds of thousands of migrants, mainly from war-torn Syria, attempt to reach Europe, often with tragic consequences.

Five years on and the number of people attempting to make the crossing remains elevated, although not nearly as high when compared to 2015. In that year alone, an estimated 1 million migrants entered the EU, according to the United Nations, with almost 4,000 feared to have drowned in the attempt to reach Europe by sea.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that, so far this year, there have been 48,529 migrant arrivals to Europe, predominantly by sea. The number is far lower than previous years with the coronavirus pandemic acting as a dampener on migration; In January 2020, the IOM reported that 110,669 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea in 2019, marking the sixth straight year that at least 100,000 arrivals were recorded on three Mediterranean sea routes.

The migration crisis in 2015 caused “deep divisions” within the bloc and “scars (that are) still healing today,” von der Leyen acknowledged Wednesday, calling on all member states to “step up” to the challenges posed by migration.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers her first State of the Union speech of 2020 on 16 September in Brussels, Belgium.

Jonathan Raa | NurPhoto via Getty Images

Several countries in eastern Europe closed borders and refused to accept quotas of migrants after the EU devised a migrant relocation scheme to relieve countries like Greece, Spain and Italy where most migrants arrived, and still do, to this day, with many in migrant camps, or reception centers, located in southern Europe while their asylum claims are processed.

Tempers have frayed both in reception centers which can be crowded and unsanitary and within the towns and islands (including Greek islands, Sicily and Malta) where centers are primarily located. Locals and governments have also been left frustrated at what they see as a lack of progress and solidarity over the issue of migration too.

The thorny issue of migrant camps returned to the fore last week after a fire ripped through the Moria Reception and Identification Center in Lesbos.

The fire left 12,000 migrants and refugees homeless, including an estimated 4,000 children, the UN said as it called for EU states to work together urgently to “de-congest the islands and assist Greece.”

The Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is scheduled to launch a long-awaited migration pact next week with the emphasis expected to be on preventing migrants from entering the EU, according to EU Observer.

Migration charities and NGOs, like Human Rights Watch, are already warning the EU that its policies have to focus on human rights.

“The European Commission should ensure that its new ‘Pact on Migration and Asylum,’ expected on September 23, reflects the right lessons learned from the devastation and human misery on Lesbos. The Commission and EU member states should commit to border governance that respects human dignity and the right to seek asylum while ensuring a fair distribution of responsibility among EU member states,” Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

Moral dilemmas

Signaling the EU’s direction on migration, von der Leyen said a clear distinction had to be made between migrants that “have the right to stay, and those who do not” and the Commission would take steps to combat people smugglers, strengthen external borders, deepen external partnership and to ensure “that people who have the right to stay are integrated and made to feel welcome.”

Federico Soda, migration expert and the IOM’s Chief of Mission in Libya, a country that sees hundreds of migrants attempts to make the sea passage to Europe, characterized the migration situation surrounding Europe as “dormant” rather than resolved.

Syrian irregular migrant family, whose boats were flooded, rescue after they were stranded on the islet while they are trying to reach Greek side of Evros River in Edirne, Turkey on February 29, 2020.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“If you measure it in terms of people reaching your borders then the crisis has ‘passed’,” Soda said, “but if you measure it in terms of people dying, suffering and being abused it’s by no means passed. And if you look at it politically in terms of the European Union I also don’t think it’s by any means passed.”

“You have to look at it from the European side in terms of what progress has been made within the union to develop policies that are adequate for these types of population movements that will inevitably (continue),” he said.

“Even to this day, the main countries that are bearing the brunt of these arrivals are mostly very dissatisfied with the response from the rest of the European member states … It’s been brushed over, put aside, but it’s by no means resolved.”

Soda said Europe needed to address migration and asylum policies now, as well as working with other nations to address inequalities within — and between countries — that spurred migration, which he conceded was a “long-term process.”

“At the moment Europe’s approach is that its borders are closed and we just don’t think that’s sustainable … You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the geography of the European continent is going to continue to have people coming and knocking at its doors in an irregular, undocumented way. And it’s the south (of Europe) now but it could be the east in future. And the reality is that these issues within the EU are still very, very much a point of great political tension.”

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