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Bruxelles hypocrisy: solidarity when we want, not when we can

Alexandra Drugescu-Radulescu

It is the 3rd of October 2013 and a refugee ship has sunk near the coast of Lampedusa island, Italy. Nearly 360 deaths were reported, becoming one of the many tragedies that were about to take place in the following years.

The European refugee crisis was kickstarted by political tensions and war in the Middle East and Africa, forcing citizens to flee from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. Due to the hardships suffered by people in their home countries, it is preferable to refer to them as refugees instead of migrants, to highlight they are not choosing to migrate due to personal choice, but rather out of fear for their lives. People were coming to the EU either through sea routes, arriving in Greece or Italy, or land routes, through the Balkans. Both are considered dangerous journeys, with countless people losing their lives trying to reach the promised land.

For a bit of context, the EU has several organizations and institutions directly responsible for the policy area of migration and asylum. Within the Council and the European Commission, the most relevant are the Foreign Affairs Council and the European External Action Service, meant to strike deals with other countries on migration. The EU agencies with on-field mandates include Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard) and European Union Asylum Agency.

At least in theory, the EU has a series of rules in place to ensure the fair treatment of asylum seekers, including ensuring asylum procedures and that applicants receive housing, food, healthcare, and employment. However, problems started arising when EU officials realized that not all member states are affected the same by the influx of refugees. The so-called “front-line countries” (Italy, Greece, and Hungary) played the most vital roles in fingerprinting, rescuing and hosting refugees. This led to many policy debates, including how to involve all EU states in the process of tackling the crisis.

Unfortunately, with the EU becoming more divided by the day and the increase of far-right anti-immigrant discourse, solidarity was forgotten and the unexpected happened: the crisis started being framed like an actual battle. The crisis started to be blamed for the terrorist attacks in Western Europe, despite the majority of them being done by individuals already holding EU passports. In the public discourse, every person seeking asylum was presented as a potential terrorist, even with the lack of evidence to back this statement up.

One might say that public discourse does not have anything to do with EU policy, but the organization made some questionable decisions that could be blamed for the amount of hate speech present in 2015. Some examples could be the EU investments in military patrols in the Mediterranean and Frontex (the European border and Coast Guard) to police EU borders.

But that was only the beginning.

Probably the most contested moves done by the EU are stopping refugee inflows and externalizing the problem. The earlier mentioned Balkan route was closed in March 2016 after Austria’s proposal, increasing the number of refugees deciding to take the riskier sea routes. Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia closed their borders, leaving refugees stranded in Greece. The majority of them were placed in refugee camps, the most mediatized being the one in Mauria, where 20,000 people lived, despite having the capacity to only hold 3,000 people.

The series of such decisions continued with the EU-Turkey Agreement. In exchange for 6 billion euros, Turkey had to close down its borders and take in every person arriving irregularly in Greece, including asylum seekers - a move that can be described as going against various human rights.

To not fully villainize the EU, it is worth mentioning that some proper policies were proposed, including creating a redistribution scheme so that every member state contributed to solving this crisis. Unfortunately, such decisions were not implemented due to a lack of cohesion of opinions and goals within the organization.

In 2015, over 3,770 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. One can not help but wonder who is to blame for this tragedy. To partially answer this, we should look at the EU's response to a more recent event: the war in Ukraine.

No one can contest the hardships faced by Ukrainians today, with 5.9 million people forced to leave their country to flee from a conflict whose death toll is still unknown. In a great show of solidarity, in 2022, the EU launched the EU Temporary Protection Scheme for Displaced Persons.

This program is activated in periods of mass influx to provide collective protection of persons and reduce the national burden in processing asylum requests. Currently, the people who can benefit from temporary protection are Ukrainian nationals and their families, non-Ukrainian persons benefiting from international protection in Ukraine, and non-Ukrainian nationals with a permanent residence permit. Beneficiaries have several rights including social welfare, access to the labor market, housing access, and medical assistance. In the case of children, access to education and legal guardianship are provided.

The Temporary Protection Scheme for Displaced Persons was quick and efficient. All member states contributed, showing an incredible example of solidarity that deserves praise. Nevertheless, the response to the war in Ukraine highlights the skeletons in the EU’s closet. In hindsight, seeing that there were solutions that could have been implemented, it seems almost redundant to call what happened in 2015 a crisis. The crisis seems to have been caused not by the influx of refugees, but by the inability of the EU to act cohesively.

Why can solidarity and human decency be achieved now, but it seemed almost impossible in 2015?

Countries with a very anti-immigrant policy in 2015, such as Poland or Hungary, welcome Ukrainians with open arms today. The double standards of EU member-states are hard to be missed, with almost all of them softening their discourses rooted in far-right politics. The media does not portray Ukrainians as a security threat, as it did with African and Middle-Eastern refugees, and no one seems to propose “externalizing the problem” anymore.

Is there any significant difference between the two cases? After careful consideration, the differences seem to be religion and skin color, a surprising bias for an organization that portrays itself as a bastion of freedom and a supporter of human rights.

All EU member-states seem to be willing to collaborate for an effective response to migration only when it comes to white Christian individuals. The illusory dichotomy between the situation in 2015 and what is happening today at the EU’s eastern border is supported blatantly in public speeches by politicians, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. These events showcase the hypocrisy of EU’s politicians, who are hiding their discriminatory beliefs behind ideas of cultural cohesion and religion. While it is paramount to fully support the actions taken for the Ukrainian people, EU nationals have to advocate for a similar response for every individual seeking refuge, regardless of cultural background.

At the end of the day, no one can save the people that suffered tremendously during the 2015 refugee crisis, but if the war in Ukraine showed us anything, it is that the EU can do better.

Ships are still sinking in the Mediterranean sea and people from the MENA region are still looking hopefully at the EU for asylum. Now it is the time for the EU to back up its reputation with actions.

Image: Getty Images

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