Europe’s policy on refugees has departed from core values

Decent camps and sea rescue of migrants are EU’s duty and innately morally right

A woman carries her child across a wooden bridge in the refugee camp of Moria on Lesbos. You have to remind yourself that you are in the EU. Photograph: Aris Messinis

A woman carries her child across a wooden bridge in the refugee camp of Moria on Lesbos. You have to remind yourself that you are in the EU. Photograph: Aris Messinis

 

I have been to many refugee camps in Africa and Asia and none are as bad as Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece. This camp was built to accommodate 3,000 people. Currently, there are approximately 15,000 living there.

The overcrowding has led to enormous tensions between and within ethnic and religious groups as well as disease outbreaks and hellish sanitary conditions.

You have to remind yourself that you are in the EU. You have to remind yourself that the new EU Commission has decided to make “EU values” a priority over the next five years.

Values guide policies. They are effectively first principles which help politicians navigate competing priorities and ever-changing contexts. Values are themselves subject to change but some are unimpeachable.

As I understand it, EU values include upholding the rule of law, respecting human dignity and support for human rights. Walking around Moria, you are looking at a situation where public policy has become detached from those values.

EU values include upholding the rule of law, respecting human dignity and support for human rights

You would think this is indefensible but an argument around “moral hazard” is often heard from those who seek to justify the poor conditions. The argument in its simplest form is that if you have conditions in these camps that respect basic human dignity, it will create a pull factor and work into the business model of traffickers and smugglers who feed on the human misery of irregular population movements. By contrast, the argument goes on, the bad conditions act as a disincentive for people who would otherwise risk their lives in dinghies.

Fear of ‘encouraging’

The same argument is put by those that would decrease Search and Rescue (SAR) patrols in the Mediterranean for fear of also encouraging more people to take to the water. This sort of thinking allows public policy to be determined by the secondary consequences of the decision rather than simply doing the right thing.

But ensuring basic decency in refugee camps and saving distressed families at sea belong to a category of public actions that should be done for their innate rightness; because they accord precisely to EU values.

This mistaken approach to policy is discernible in other public policy spheres, particularly in housing where it seems to be anathema to build social housing for fear it will discourage self-reliance and demotivate those who have been fortunate enough to own their own homes.

The Taoiseach’s reference to people who get up early in the morning demonstrates a similar suspicion of the laggard around whom policy should be carefully planned.

The Government seems to believe “the individual pursuit of self-interest conduces to aggregate efficiency”, a view fashionable in the Tory party in the 1980s. So when I hear of “pull factors” in the migration debate, the argument has a familiar ring to it. Rather than rescue being at the centre of the policy, the policy is developed around the laggard who is seeking to jump the queue.

It seems to trouble itself with the question, “what if they are not genuine asylum seekers and we have provided for basic human decency or saved them from drowning for nothing?”

Permits and visas

The pull factor should have meant the so-called refugee crisis should have started far earlier than 2015. When the Syrian war started in 2011, most Syrians refugees fled to Turkey and stayed there. They only started moving towards Europe in 2015 when it was clear that Barack Obama had abandoned his red line and Islamic State were on the advance.

'What if they are not genuine asylum seekers and we have provided for basic human decency or saved them from drowning for nothing?'

It is important there is a vigilance to prevent economic migrants jumping the queue and avoiding the normal requirements of work permits and travel visas. However, my trip to Lesbos suggests that the vast majority are likely to fulfil the basic conditions of refugee status.

For example, about 40 per cent of the people living there are children. Typically, economic migrants (as opposed to refugees) are young people travelling alone rather than families travelling together. Also, according to humanitarian agency Médecins Sans Frontières the incidence of psychological and psychiatric issues in the camps indicates a high likelihood of conflict-related trauma.

It is important that arguments are met with counter-argument rather than accusations of racism. If the argument stands on its merits, enough people will be convinced to ensure the genuinely racist are marginalised and rendered irrelevant.

Equally, it is important that we don’t walk a circle around this public policy issue. For too long, there has been a sense that this issue was off-limits. In a vacuum, misinformation will thrive.

Barry Andrews was elected as a Fianna Fáil Member of the European Parliament in May 2019. He is due to take up his seat when the UK leaves the EU

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