How Europe Failed Its Refugees

“Refugees: Europe Failed” by Cecilia Malmström, for the Times of Malta:

European promises of solidarity with people in need were tested in 2011. It is worrying to note that Europe, collectively, did not pass the test. Now, all member states of the European Union must take responsibility and make sure that 2012 will be a better year for asylum matters.

Two events in the past 12 months stand out as having profound, world-altering consequences.

First of all, the deepening economic crisis, which, in turn, became a crisis of confidence in our leaders and in Europe’s capacity to find common solutions. Secondly, the Arab Spring. In Tunis, Cairo and beyond, citizens rose up to fight for liberty, democracy and human rights, throwing decades-old assumptions about their societies overboard along with their oppressors…

Meanwhile, more than 50,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean in rickety vessels to the EU. Far too many died trying. Others arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa and Malta and, at a pledging conference last spring, European countries had the chance to show their solidarity. The result? A mere 300 refugees being relocated from Malta to other member states.

Only a few weeks ago, the world convened in Geneva for a ministerial conference on refugee issues, the biggest gathering ever of its kind. For a full year preceding the event, the UN refugee agency called on all countries to come to Geneva with pledges to accept refugees. The bid from the EU came to zero, as member states were unable to agree on a joint pledge.

An underlying problem is the political mood in many member states.

We have not seen as many populist and xenophobic parties in European national parliaments since before World War II. True to form, they exploit the current crisis, trying to shift the blame from poorly managed national economies to immigrant populations. Here, we need European and national leadership to make sure that populist logic does not dictate the agenda…

Despite common minimum rules, several countries’ asylum systems do not function well enough, leading to unacceptable reception conditions for migrants. And those seeking asylum face severe uncertainty as standards in granting refugee status differ greatly between countries. Such disparities are not acceptable in a European Union where we have signed the same international conventions and unite around the same values. The EU needs common high standards and stronger cooperation to ensure that asylum seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system, wherever they apply.

That is why the EU has been inching towards a common asylum policy for over a decade and has set the deadline to 2012 for putting the common system into place. Some positive steps were taken in 2011 but negotiations between member states are still too slow-moving. Now, we brace ourselves for the new year, when those talks need to be significantly intensified…

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