More and safer passages to the EU, for all migrants and refugees

During the European Migration Forum (2-3 March), I had the opportunity to co-host a workshop together with the European Commission. This year the theme was “Migrants’ access to the EU, to rights and to services”. Organised with the European Economic and Social Committee, the forum gathers around 200 participants, mainly from civil society organisations from both national and European level. The topic of the workshop was “the EU legal migration framework” and the purpose was to feed into the European Commission’s work to check whether EU legislation in this area is fit for its purpose.

When asking civil society to identify the main gaps and challenges in current EU legal migration framework, the participants focused on ways for people in vulnerable situations to enter or stay in the EU. By the end of the workshop we had identified four key recommendations:

Firstly – just like during previous years’ European Migration Forum – participants insisted on one comprehensive legal framework for workers’ rights in the EU, linking to other policies that might affect them and their families. Participants argued against sectoral legislation for different workers, as we see in today’s directives for highly skilled or seasonal workers. It leads to fragmentation and compartmentalisation of different rights depending on, for example, a person’s ethnicity, gender or skill level. While a comprehensive legal framework may be hard to achieve in the current political anti-immigration climate, there are many things that can be done in the meantime, such as providing information in countries of origin about work opportunities in the EU, better matching of skills with jobs available, and tackling exploitation. There is also a need to identity existing demands of low- and medium-skilled workers that do not yet have any legal ways to come to the EU.

Secondly, in order to tackle exploitation and trafficking, participants identified the need for better systems to assess and monitor exploitation, training, labour inspection and prosecution, as well as the need to prevent secondary victimisation.

Thirdly, the EU legal definition of family reunification needs to be revised as it is too restrictive, and does not reflect reality, explained the participants. A family is not only a husband, wife and a small child; other family members should be able to reunite, too. Family reunification was also discussed as a topic in itself in another workshop that identified the cost and waiting period for application documents as a key obstacle. In some cases one can wait for a year to get an appointment with an embassy before being able to apply for reunification. Therefore many people end up turning to smugglers in order to reunite with family members.

Fourthly, participants proposed that the EU should take a position in favour of regularisation – i.e. paving the way for undocumented migrants to attain what they need in order to be considered as legally living and working in the EU – based on a human rights approach and linked to employment opportunities. Most migrants enter legally and become undocumented, and they have no avenues back to regularity. In addition, undocumented migrants should have access to essential services including healthcare, housing and education, and the organisation or individual providing such services should not be criminalised for offering them to undocumented migrants.

The only way to tackle smugglers is by offering legal channels to the EU, said Mr François Crépeau, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants in his opening remarks. “Migration is our normal condition; people will move as we always have done, it is in our DNA”, said Mr Crépeau.

“I do not feel that my journey has ended, I still miss my country and my family”, said Muhannad Bitar, an 18 year old refugee from Syria who shared his compelling story of “seeing the best and worst of Europe”. He told participants about being stopped and sent back to Syria five times by Turkish border guards. The sixth time he paid smugglers to cross to Lesbos with a rubber dinghy. In Athens it was four months before he was helped with accommodation, when he entered a relocation programme. Today he has a temporary permit to stay in the Netherlands. “It is a system designed to stop us from seeking refuge with you”, ended Mr Bitar.

Social Platform and our members will continue to work to influence EU policy-makers and decision-makers to enable more and safer passages to the EU, and for the social and economic inclusion of migrants and refugees.

Read also my blog post about previous year European Migration Forum