Open the front door to migration, before closing the back door

“You first have to close the back door, before you can open the front door”, was the answer by Ann Mettler, Head of the European Political Strategy Centre, on how to ensure legal avenues for low- and medium-skilled workers coming to Europe, asked during our General Assembly on 27 April. The idea that one first has to stop irregular migration before opening regular channels is not only the view of Ms Mettler, it is shared by many politicians. Decision-makers agree on making agreements with Afghanistan and Turkey to keep migrants out of the EU, and return policies for those not granted the right to stay, rather than on how to foster solidarity and a welcoming society for those fleeing war, persecution and poverty. The 2016 Annual Report on Migration and Asylum shows that countries such as Sweden that welcomed most refugees and migrants are now making their legislation more restrictive.

The European Commission is currently making an evaluation of its “legal migration legislation*” to see if it is “fit for purpose”, as a part of this work the Commission is consulting the general public, including civil society and Social Platform. Last week I had the opportunity to present our initial concerns to the European Migration Network and the European Economic Social Committee. Issues identified by our members and the European Migration Forum (gathering annually more than 120 national and European civil society organisations). This year the Forum focused on access to rights and services, and several of our members participated.

Overall, current legal migration legislation is fragmented and there different rights and protections are prioritised according to a worker’s skill level. As an example, highly-skilled workers have more rights under the Blue Card Directive than low-skilled workers under the Seasonal Workers Directive. Ideally we would like to see a comprehensive legal framework , granting equal rights and protection to all migrant workers. Realistically, given the current political climate revisiting directives may risk regression and worsening policies. In the meantime, we will develop our arguments for what we want and why it is crucial to improve the implementation of existing legislation.

As long as the front door is closed, people are forced to enter from the back, many of whom would prefer the main entrance if they had the choice. In some cases the door is supposedly open but too many obstacles block people from coming in. One such example is the many barriers to the Family Reunification Directive, including different standards in Member States, a lack of nearby competent embassies, high costs for visas, translation and DNA testing, long waiting times, problems with providing documents after fleeing war, and a narrow definition of ‘family members’. Read this compelling story from SaraJane whose parents were unable to apply for family reunification, leaving them undocumented.

While there are not enough safe and legal channels for low- and medium-skilled workers to enter the EU, Europe has a shortage of workers in these sectors. In addition, we also have the challenge of high-skilled migrants taking up lower-skilled positions due to their irregular status or discrimination in the labour market. Besides family reunification, the only avenue left open to these migrants is thee Seasonal Workers Directive – and according to EU law one can only apply while residing outside the EU. Highly-skilled migrants, on the other hand,can apply for a Blue Card without official residence in the EU.

One particular group that the door is slammed shut for, and which Social Platform focuses on, is domestic workers and carers, of whom many are undocumented migrant women. Undocumented migrants are at risk of workplace exploitation, such as being underpaid or not paid at all, long working hours, violence, physical and sexual harassment, and a lack of access to social protection or social security. They risk arrest and deportation if they report labour violence to authorities. Encouragingly, a recent European Court of Human Rights ruling against Greece recognised that all workers, regardless of residence status, have the right to protection against exploitation.

Migrant workers, regardless of their skills level, may lose their contract if their employer fails to fulfil its obligations with regards to tax, labour rights and working conditions. This leaves the worker particularly vulnerable, especially to exploitation as they are dependent of their boss. This is why Social Platform would like a migrant residence permit status to be independent of their employer. Allowing the possibility to work part-time is also crucial to ensure that medical conditions, giving birth or caring for children won’t lead to losing one’s residence permit.

In summary, here is how we think the EU should protect the rights and dignity of migrant workers:

  • One legal framework for all migrant workers.
  • Research into ways to regulate the status of low- and medium-skilled workers already in the EU.
  • Data collection to better understand the prevalence of undocumented migrant workers in the sector.
  • The establishment of a firewall between the enforcement of labour standards and the enforcement of immigration control in law, policy and practice.
  • Ensure that all migrant workers who suffered exploitation have access to protection and redress.

To learn more, download my presentation (PDF) made at the European Migration Network and the European Economic and Social Committee. You can also read my previous blog post on safe passages to the EU.

*The European Commission’s fitness check covers seven Directives: Family reunification Directive (2003/86/EC), Long-Term Residents Directive (2003/109/EC), EU Blue Card Directive (2009/50/EC), The Single Permit Directive (2011/98/EU), Seasonal Workers Directive (2014/36/EU), Intra-Corporate Transferees Directive (2014/66/EU) and Students and Researchers Directive (2016/801)