Posted on 9 April 2020 by Alezini Loxa
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.
Sustainable migration is a powerful rhetorical tool. That is in the sense that the vagueness of the concept allows for it to be used under different political agendas and with divergent implications for human rights protection and migration governance; from utmost respect for all people, to cost and benefit analysis of human lives.
But is there an intrinsic value in sustainable migration, conceptualised in light of the holistic protection envisioned by the 2030 Agenda, which could alter the way EU migration governance has been taking place in the past?
Even though posing this question seems a bit out of topic in the times of COVID-19, please bear in mind that there is a significant number of people stranded in migration camps with no access to basic sanitation, or possibility of effective social distancing. Their stay in these camps is not a matter of choice, but rather of EU policies on the ground.
Emergency and short-term solutions
The 2015-2016 migration/refugee crisis indicated the inherent deficiencies of the EU migration framework in place. In an attempt to respond to a situation framed under an emergency discourse, the EU pursued exceptional measures to react to an immediate need, employing instruments outside the toolkit of EU law.
Central in this was the EU-Turkey Agreement, which is to be seen in line with already existing soft law agreements with third countries. Such instruments, albeit outside the scope of EU law, were already seen as central to the EU’s Global Approach on Migration. That is an approach to migration, which instead of focusing on regulation of entry and stay of incoming individuals, is rather addressing the reduction of root causes of migration and outsourcing EU border control to third countries. In the years that followed, the emergency rhetoric was used to reinforce, or even regularise an alteration in the balancing of human rights in the context of mobility in relation to security considerations
Nevertheless, the EU policy on the ground seemed to have succeeded in reducing and stabilising the arrivals of new populations. Hence, instead of examining what instruments would be adopted so that the EU is better able to handle situations of mass influx in the future, the political agenda post 2015 was focused on reinforcing mechanisms of exclusion. Namely third country partnerships, surveillance mechanisms and search and rescue operation effected in ways that there is no physical control of EU authorities on people found in distress at sea.
Is emergency the new normal?
The stabilised context of EU migration governance seemed to have been altered in February 2020. In mid-February 2020, the Greek Government, in an attempt of better implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement, announced its plan to expropriate privately owned lands in specific Greek islands in order to build closed spaces of containment for migrants and refugees of bigger capacity compared to the existing hotspots. The announcement was met with discontent by the local populations, which in turn was addressed with police suppression.
The situation was escalating on parallel on the other side of the Aegean. Following fatalities suffered by Turkey due to an attack by Syrian forces in Ildib, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his inability to further guard the EU-Turkey borders. This led to the beginning of a new flow of refugees and migrants from mainland Turkey to Greece. Erdoğan used these refugees and migrants as a bargaining chip to renegotiate the terms of his agreement with the EU.
In response, the Greek Government increased military presence at the land borders and declared that no illegal entry would be allowed. Simultaneously, in the Greek islands, citizens undertook the role of vigilantes, denying boarding to refugee dinghies rescued at sea by the Greek coastguard, blocking hotspots so that newly arrived migrants and refugees cannot enter and randomly attacking NGO workers, journalists and anyone who was not Greek.
Further to that, Greece proceeded in the adoption of a legal act, whereby the possibility of submission of applications for asylum was suspended for one month effective from March 1st 2020. This measure, which is in derogation from international and European obligations, was initiated in the pretext of emergency threatening the security of the Greek State.
The EU response to the situation on the ground was formed around an Action Plan which emphasised securing border controls in the affected areas instead of managing migration movement in a fair and responsible manner.
What is the way forward?
These events serve to point out that governance through partnerships of contested legal nature is always dependent on the will of both parties. However, when such third countries are found in a context of destabilised national and international setting, there is no way to ensure that the partnerships can remain functional in the long term.
Awaiting an EU pact on asylum and migration the following might be said. The crisis and emergency narrative prevalent in EU institutional discourse in the years following 2015 has been accompanied by countervailing claims of sustainability. While it seems that sustainability in this context is understood as a long-term plan aimed at holistically addressing migration governance, the question remains: how do we envision sustainable migration?
In light of the holistic approach of the 2030 Agenda, sustainable migration should be understood and framed in light of maximal protection of human life. It should be centred around migrants as humans and not as flows, whereas it should also ensure that there are sufficient legal channels available for people on the move to reach their end destination in a safe and dignified manner. Instead of deflecting responsibility and furthering exclusion, EU migration policy should be inclusive and respectful of all humans, regardless of their legal status.