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Migration and security – a misunderstood relationship

Submitted by on 07 Nov 2017 – 14:31

Migration and security are topics that have topped the European Union’s agenda for two years now. However, what is neither understandable nor justifiable are the cynical attempts we have been seeing to define migration as a security threat per se. Michael O’Flaherty, Director, EU Agency of Fundamental Rights, writes about the misunderstood relationship between security and migration

On the one hand, there are the innumerable images that have gone round the world of the conflict in Syria, and the overcrowded boats arriving in southern Europe.

On the other hand, it is a primary duty of the state to protect the security of its population, and the spate of terrorist attacks around the EU has shaken the faith of many ordinary people in the ability of governments to protect them.

However, what is neither understandable nor justifiable are the cynical attempts we have been seeing to define migration as a security threat per se. Deep-seated fears among the general population exploited by nationalist and populist groups are increasingly finding their way into the mainstream, amplified through their repetition by political leaders and social media networks. This is leading to a situation in which measures designed for emergency situations are fast becoming the norm – and to the dangerous conflation of migration and terrorism.

Together with the blanket suspicion of migrants comes an increasing use of measures such as profiling based on ethnicity and religion. At the same time, tools and databases originally intended to support asylum processing or migration management are increasingly regarded as mechanisms for law enforcement.

Of course, quick and easy access to relevant personal data about third-country nationals can be a crucial law enforcement tool.

But wherever a security measure leads to fundamental rights limitations, they must have a clearly demonstrated legitimate purpose. We need to be very careful that we do not give up hard-won liberties in the service of 100 percent security that will always remain illusionary.

Furthermore, adopting security measures in haste, without considering their long-term impact may well have consequences diametrically opposed to their intended aim.

Why? Firstly, security clampdowns that target a particular ethnic or religious group risks alienating the very people who need to be made to feel an integral part of European society. New data from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights on the discrimination of Muslims in the EU, to be published this autumn, show that while more than three-quarters of the Muslim population feel strongly attached to their place of residence and have a high rate of trust in the national legal systems and police, this trust becomes considerably lower amongst those who have suffered harassment or discrimination. And without confidence in a state that is believed to be unwilling to combat injustice, the likelihood of turning to other sources for guidance and authority is far greater.

Secondly, closing external borders and making it more difficult for those seeking international protection to access the EU leads not to fewer refugees, but simply to more deaths. The International Organisation for Migration has reported 2,361 deaths in the Mediterranean so far this year. And 2017 is far from over.

So there is another, quite different security problem. It is a grim irony that while we in the EU are perpetually debating public safety and the potential risks that migrants could pose in this regard, the safety of the migrants themselves is in much greater danger.

Last year, there were 65 million people worldwide who had been forcibly displaced, an increase of more than 50% in just 20 years. 1.2 million people applied for asylum in the EU last year: almost a third of them came from war-torn Syria, while others were fleeing conflict or tensions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Eritrea. The vast majority of those seeking protection – many of whom are children – long for nothing more than to be law-abiding in a law-abiding country.

But in the two years that the Fundamental Rights Agency has been collecting information about the human rights situation of the refugees and other migrants arriving on our shores, we have consistently found inadequacies in reception facilities, with a high incidence of abuse and sexual assault in some places.

We can also not ignore the growing body of reports about the increasingly poor conditions for migrants in countries of transit such as Libya, where abuse and trafficking of women and children have reached horrifying levels. The “right to liberty and security of person” enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights therefore appears to be endangered to a greater extent for many of those making their way to Europe than those within it.

These challenges are not only serious. They are of a magnitude the EU has never faced before. Nonetheless, I am certain they are surmountable.

How? After more than two decades in the field, it is clear to me that human rights are the answer. We need to be much more vociferous in showing that fulfilling the human rights of everyone in the EU brings with it an immense potential for positive change. A greater emphasis on inclusion and on providing legal avenues for migrants to reach Europe would increase the cohesion and safety of our societies, by making integration policies more targeted and effective. This in turn would help to fill the skills gap that is growing wider in many industries across the EU, leading to more sustainable economic growth more equally spread between different segments of the population.

Finally, a human rights approach would confound those groups against whom we really need to safeguard ourselves: the radical extremists who preach division and hatred on the one hand, and on the other the smugglers, who have been making a fortune out of desperate people’s misery for too long.

There is indeed a connection between security and migration. But it is not the one that populists and tabloids are so fond of. Rather than a zero-sum game in which either ‘terrorist migrants’ are allowed to enter the EU or our countries are kept secure, EU leaders need to realise that policy based on human rights will honour our obligations to those in need – and at the same time make our societies safer