How to build a welcoming Europe?

25 Jun 2021 | Updates | 0 comments

Frontex has failed dramatically, it has turned Europe’s borders into mass graves, and Europeans share responsibility for lost lives. The solution is not to abolish European institutions, but to build new humane ones that actually work.

815 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2021, and thousands more languish in camps and detention centres. Over the past three decades, since records on the issue began, more than 44,000 refugees have lost their lives during their journey. And the sea is just one fatal frontier. Thousands more die crossing the Sahara desert, or while detained in camps, abused by terrorists, traffickers and militias.

This is a tragedy that rolls on, year after year, and is liable to turn worse and worse as global heating escalates. This is our responsibility as Europeans, as citizens, and as human beings. That is not a pleasant fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. Our taxpayer Euros, our elected representatives, and the professional civil servants, diplomats, and law enforcement officers are those who make these deaths possible, in our name. A robust policy to save lives and humanely welcome new arrivals is possible, and yet it is not being undertaken.  

This month, the European Court of Auditors has published a damning report on Frontex, outlining its failures to carry out its mandate. Far from being part of a solution, Frontex has been reportedly complicit in human rights violations. Shadowy European operators have been alleged in attempts to persuade authoritarian governments to detain refugees on the move, and secretly sponsor militias that run detention camps. Rather than rescue human beings when they drown in dangerous waters, Frontex has been implicated in a policy of “push-backs”, turning refugees around away from Europe at increased risk.

The absurdity is that Europe does in fact genuinely need these newcomers. An aging population, with many roles in the economy to be filled – the demand is there. On a purely economic basis, migrants are net contributors. Those who are entrepreneurial enough to make the journey over have all the potential to make a contribution, if given a fair chance. And all of the conflicts and hardships in the European neighbourhood that people escape from, are direct results of Europe’s colonial or postcolonial policies. History seems to have a sense of justice.

However, to mobilise action and build political will in a new direction, there needs to be a powerful new narrative, and a way of reaching out and persuading new audiences. Politicians of this generation are terrified of what would happen if they stuck their neck out on an unpopular decision. Leaders prefer to follow public opinion rather than shape it. This is where we end up in a situation where member state governments refuse to implement refugee policies that they themselves voted for.  This is where civil society has a crucial role to play.

There are now growing calls to abolish Frontex altogether, with a large coalition of civil society organisations coming together under the banner of the simple slogan “Abolish Frontex” – it speaks for itself. And yet, it is impossible to comprehend. Do we really believe that a joined up European policy on borders and migration can be carried out without any agency in charge to handle it? That can’t possibly be the case. Do we want piecemeal disjointed national government response? Probably not.    

A refugee child escaping war and conflict, or grinding poverty and oppression deserves a bright future. European citizens deserve to live in an open and welcoming society that benefits from diversity and lives up to basic humanitarian obligations. We do need a European agency that takes care for this to happen. We do not need it to “fight” innocent human beings seeking a better life, but to put human well-being and human rights first and seek humane and fair solutions for Europe and its neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, using hyperbolic or maximalist terms doesn’t help set a new agenda, it helps confuse the conversation, and discredit otherwise legitimate positions. Civil society campaigners have a vital role to play in shaping the direction of what comes next in EU policy. Instead of kicking up mud at what to abolish, there is a need to draw up the positive blueprint of the institutions we need to build.   


(Photography by Julie Ricard – a refugee camp in Greece)