Migrations and refugees: the EU’s contradictions

Migrations in refugee camps


Antonella Iavazzo

Antonella Iavazzo

Migrations are a big unsolved issue in the EU. The attitude of the European Union is not always coherent with its guiding principles.

World Refugees Day was celebrated on 20th June, originally called by the United Nations to commemorate the approval of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. Between current news and official speeches given by politicians for the occasion, I accidentally came across Erri De Luca’s poem “Nota di Geografia”, which I did not know but which struck me immediately, especially the excerpt      “touch Italy fewer lives than      those who got on board (…) yet Italy is an open word, full of air”.  A few lines but so intense and full of meaning that I was unconsciously led      to a bittersweet reflection on the very concept of immigration policies and hospitality. We live in a time of migrations, where each migration is a story in itself, because it originates from wars and persecutions, growing social inequalities, the search for a job, family reunifications, study and research reasons. Man, as the anthropologist Giulio Angioni says, is a “migratory animal” and, as such, the disposition to move constitutes one of the main constants of humanity over the millennia, from the great empires of the past to modern globalization; the journey allowed geographically distant cultures to meet in their incredible variety.[1] From the mid-nineteenth century, through the whole of the twentieth century, migratory experiences have constantly changed and transformed, between short and long-term projects, single individuals and entire families. At the same time, migrations of refugees and asylum seekers have also taken on new peculiarities compared to the post-war period: due to ethnic conflicts in the African continent, the Arab springs in the Mediterranean, the war in Syria, entire peoples have been tragically forced to flee, in search of a new home, looking for salvation and better living conditions.[2] 

Migrations _ mediterranean

Although protection towards foreigners would seem an inherent tradition, not only in our human beings but in our own European and Mediterranean civilization, the sad perception, constantly confirmed by the news, is that Europe is gradually losing memory of its past of great overseas migrations.[3] Many measures adopted by the countries of the EU in recent years have been conceived following the trail of biased information showing the migrant as a danger, a potential criminal, a person to be rejected; measures favored both by legislative weaknesses and by international agreements that silently grant the management of migratory flows to dictatorships like Turkey or military regimes like Libya. The “migration crisis” – as it is called – that has affected the European continent in recent years, has highlighted the difficulties and contradictions of the Union itself in adopting univocal measures among member states. Above all, it leads us to reflect and reconsider the very concept of “border”, no longer understood only as a territorial boundary but, in a broader sense, as a clear separation between “us” and “them”, as a limit towards the construction of truly inclusive societies. Is there a balance between human solidarity and the obligation that states have to protect their borders? Faced with the immense suffering and fatigue of those who undertake such a migratory path, is there a duty for states to welcome?[4]

On the one hand, there is no doubt that World Refugees Day is considered an achievement, the result of the collective capacity and strength of all the people forced to leave their land. An act, which requires extraordinary courage and huge sacrifices, the ability to face one’s own destiny is a characteristic of the most courageous. The merit of the aforementioned Geneva Convention, based on the principle of non-refoulment[5], was precisely the creation of a common international approach for an institution previously regulated at the state level. Following this trend, there was a strong expectation that the new EU would also play a proactive role in terms of political asylum: the idea that a free space without internal borders would make use of a single approach to this matter has, in the long-run, led to the introduction of common standards for ​​the procedures for requesting, evaluating and issuing the right to asylum, as well as the reception, integration, treatment and management of migrants for political reasons. At the time of attributing competence in the field of political asylum to the Union, however, the Member States were already bound by obligations deriving from international law, showing considerable divergences on the subject at the national level. If on the one hand, therefore, European law has allowed the codification of an already operative corpus of legislation, at the same time, it has sharpened the differences within the individual countries. In regulatory terms, the EU has made clear progress: inspired by the key principle of loyal cooperation, it has sought to provide Member States with a common set of tools to meet their daily and operational needs (introduction of a single procedure for reviewing the questions, common database of information on all countries of origin of asylum seekers, creation of a single common way to address specific reception problems).[6]

However, it is not the regulatory environment that I want to focus on here; I believe, in fact, that it often does not offer an exhaustive interpretation on the subject of refugees and political asylum. Looking beyond international treaties and declarations, we can realize how the European response has often proved inadequate, reacting to the increase in migratory flows with a dialectic deeply rooted into fear and perceived security. The notions of asylum or refugee have moved further and further away from the ideals of solidarity and hospitality, approaching that of personal protection. The prevailing approach, namely that of containing arrivals, demonstrates how an area that should be dominated by choices made for humanitarian and ethical reasons has become the prerogative of politics and wrong migration practices that perpetually violate human rights leading to the death of thousands of people. In an attempt to regulate and reduce the presence of foreigners in their territory, individual States have increasingly turned towards a reduction of European legislative standards in favor of their own national laws, often much more restrictive[7] – national procedures, in fact, also vary according to the countries of origin of the refugees and on the relationship they have with the host territory (Sweden, for example, welcomes 80% of Iraqi refugees while Great Britain, while in the EU, only 13%).[8] The inability to define coherent and coordinated measures has led national governments to relaunch cooperation with countries of origin and transit countries to contain flows: the beneficiary of this new strategy was Turkey[9], which has become the key country to contain the exodus of Syrian citizens to the Greek islands. The significant reduction in arrivals has turned it into a reference model for relations with the countries of origin and transit of the central Mediterranean route, in particular with Niger and Libya.[10] Also with regard to the work of NGOs, the prevailing approach seems to be to limit their work rather than considering them as a resource. Although in September 2020 the European Commission had asked Member States for greater coordination and support, rescue and search activities continued to be hindered by administrative or criminal proceedings, by obstructive actions such as preventing rescue operations; as well as deploying no additional ships or resources for rescue activities along the main migratory routes. The spread of the pandemic and the resulting restrictive measures have further blocked, if not called off, the deployment of ships.[11] The general situation is still extremely condemnable: in 2020 alone, more than 2600 deaths were recorded on the Central Mediterranean route: the progressive withdrawal of ships from the Mediterranean, the growing obstacles to the rescue activities of NGOs, the decisions to delay the disembarkment and the failure to assign safe harbors clearly questioned the integrity and effectiveness of the rescue system

We are witnessing, quoting Don Luigi Ciotti, a real hemorrhage of humanity, deplorable actions that Europe – the cradle of human rights and democracy – will one day have to deal with.[12] The very immediate European imperative must be to protect people in need, using a corpus of coherent measures and policies as a useful tool for fulfilling their international obligations and ethical duties. Only by working in compliance with the principles of solidarity and shared responsibility the EU can still symbolize a solid refuge for those who fear persecution and an attractive destination for the talent and resourcefulness of workers, students and researchers.[13] For the exercise of this international responsibility to be effective, it is first of all essential to modify the dialectic through which we read the world: the immigrant is not the enemy, but the victim. If it is true that migration has always existed in human history, it is also true that the peaks occurred in recent years have been responsibility of a political and economic system generating lacerating inequalities, exploitation of entire regions of the planet, wars for the exclusive appropriation of raw materials, consequently forcing millions of people to flee. What must be contained is the logic of profit implicitly underlying an unjust economic and political system. Forced migrations caused by environmental deterioration, extraction of local resources, the devastating effects of global warming, constitute forms of human rights violations and centralization of power. These aspects are not only closely related to each other but promoters of a development model that dangerously violates the ecological limits of the planet as well as those of human and social justice.[14] Consider, for example, the sadly know phenomenon of water grabbing, through which powerful economic and political actors control or divert precious water resources to their advantage, stealing them from local communities or entire nations whose livelihood is based precisely on those same plundered ecosystems; currently, 1 billion people do not have access to drinking water in the world, while 70% of the land is now at risk of desertification. Equally important is the impact of the agri-food industry in terms of exploitation of water resources and subtraction of land to the detriment of small crops. Conflicts over natural resources and precious minerals in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or over oil in Nigeria and South Sudan are responsible for the largest migratory waves in the region.[15]

To pay the price of these subordinate power relations and the consequent damage to the ecosystem clearly are the poorest populations, whose survival, more closely connected to the free services of nature, is more exposed to vulnerability, deprivation, and inequality. This logic clearly shows how the main structural crises of the modern era, migration on the front line, are the historical product of highly unfair and incorrect relations of production, consumption, and power; dynamics to which states react by making use of policies that can be interpreted mainly as a retrospective and non-preventive response, which only facilitate an inhuman war against those fleeing wars or unacceptable living conditions. Walls, and fortified borders are not only extremely inhumane but above all useless: what should be done is thinking and analyzing migration from a global perspective, really reducing inequalities and injustices, social and climatic imbalances, making sure that every person, at every latitude and part of the globe, can live a free and dignified life.

Antonella Iavazzo


[1]  https://www.iltascabile.com/societa/viaggio-migrante/

[2]  https://legale.savethechildren.it/diritti-oltre-frontiera-riflessioni-tema-migrazioni-accoglienza-integrazione-stati-nazionali-unione-europea/

[3]  https://rm.coe.int/una-richiesta-di-aiuto-per-i-diritti-umani-il-crescente-divario-nella-/1680a1dd0f

[4]  https://legale.savethechildren.it/diritti-oltre-frontiera-riflessioni-tema-migrazioni-accoglienza-integrazione-stati-nazionali-unione-europea/

[5] According to Article 33, a refugee cannot be prevented from entering the territory nor can he be deported, expelled or transferred to territories where his life or freedom would be threatened

[6]  https://www.assemblea.emr.it/europedirect/pace-e-diritti/archivio/i-diritti-umani-e-leuropa/2008/diritto-dasilo-come-funziona-nellue

[7] Consider the package of “Asylpaket” measures introduced in Germany in 2015 and responsible for a worsening of the condition of asylum seekers at the national level: countries such as Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo have been included in the list of “safe countries”, resulting in the impossibility of request international protection for those who come from it; monetary transfers were requested from the applicants and the spaces intended for the reception were reduced. In 2019, France also exerted an important squeeze on the assistance offered to refugees and asylum seekers, again requiring certification on the visa health certificate and the eviction of migrant camps in Paris.

[8] https://www.assemblea.emr.it/europedirect/pace-e-diritti/archivio/i-diritti-umani-e-leuropa/2008/diritto-dasilo-come-funziona-nellue

[9] Turkey has pledged to provide shelter and protection for some three million Syrian citizens, in exchange for substantial EU funding from member states and for unlocking negotiations on the visa liberalization agreement for Turkish citizens.

[10] According to IOM data (international organization for migration), in the period 2019-2020, there were more than 20,000 repatriations to Libya despite the undeniable evidence of violations of human rights and the absence of guarantees on the subject and transparency and responsibility

[11]  http://documenti.camera.it/leg18/dossier/pdf/AT029.pdf

[12]  https://www.libera.it/schede-666-immigrati_e_accoglienza_non_e_questione_di_sicurezza_o_di_ordine_pubblico

[13] https://unipd-centrodirittiumani.it/it/schede/I-presupposti-per-la-creazione-del-Sistema-Comune-Europeo-di-Asilo/237#:~:text=Sebbene%20i%20trattati%20sull’Unione,28%2D38)


[15] Ibid


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