Geneva - In a webinar hosted by Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, four distinguished guests discussed what it means to be an asylum seeker in an increasingly anti-migrant Europe. The online event covered a range of topics related to Europe’s discriminatory treatment of asylum seekers, including the EU’s externalisation policies, the criminalisation of rescue missions and solidarity, and the crackdown on resistance by EU policymakers.

Euro-Med Monitor’s Chief of Programmes and Communications Muhammad Shehada began the discussion by highlighting the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in Europe, citing the EU’s “militarisation of borders, securitisation of people on the move, [and] use of legal and illegal means to deter new arrivals”. These tools are proving to be ineffective, he told webinar viewers, as last year the EU registered the highest number of “illegal” crossings since 2016. “This is because the EU’s response is addressing the superficial symptoms of the problem, not its root causes. These people are fleeing mortal danger and are desperate for a safe refuge,” he said.

   EU authorities should devise and collaborate to create new safe and legal pathways for claiming asylum in Europe, instead of criminalising crossings deemed to be illegal   

Muhammed Shehada, Chief of Programmes and Communications at Euro-Med Monitor

Shehada concluded that EU authorities “should devise and collaborate to create new safe and legal pathways for claiming asylum in Europe”, instead of criminalising crossings deemed to be illegal. Head of Policy and Documentation at Amnesty International Denmark Martin Lemberg-Pedersen then made the “rather dismal comparison between the way in which European countries reacted when the mass displacement occurred in Ukraine, [as opposed to] to the displacement that occurred in Afghanistan”.

According to Lemberg-Pedersen, “There is certainly a need for policy alignment at the EU level to contemplate migration policy as an issue which is interlinked and should be considered with trade policy, displacement, extractivism, and support for repressive states.” He underscored that examining these key connections is necessary, as otherwise “we are only going to see more displacement within a system which is not geared to effectively address any issues”. Ultimately, he called for “a very timely and urgent intervention on the matter”.

Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles Catherine Woollard described the current situation in Europe as “not only a state of extreme hostility, but one of deliberate hostility towards asylum seekers arriving for protection in Europe”. Woolard discussed the elements of externalisation, contending that the “strategy to externalise asylum applicants and refugees to other regions” effectively serves to transfer Europe’s responsibilities to other countries.

“Inclusion through access to rights is extremely important,” asserted Woollard, “and there is a significant amount of work going on around the issue despite efforts to limit inclusion in the EU as a result of anti-integration policies.” Furthermore, she insisted that “foreign policies should support livelihoods, support development, and support security for people in other regions, which in turn will help prevent displacement in the first place”.

International Rescue Committee Senior Policy Advisor Olivia Sundberg explained how the right to asylum and dignified reception is being significantly weakened. “Asylum seekers are exposed to delay of registration for several weeks upon arrival, making them vulnerable to unlawful pushbacks,” she said. An important related concern, she argued, “is the use of safe third country concepts by countries such as Greece, which is encouraged by the European Commission to deny people access to fair and full asylum procedures”.

Sundberg explained that, amongst many of the challenges faced, “The legal policy changes and practices that deny people access to protection and dignified reception upon arrival to Europe primarily increase humanitarian needs at borders.” Concerns at borders include violent pushbacks, family separation, non-assistance, and the negative use of technology, she said. Sundberg pointed to new border infrastructure funded by the EU as part of the problem—enhanced structures, increased interception forces, and fences all support the criminalisation of migration and further toughen existing solidarity efforts.

   The legal policy changes and practices that deny people access to protection and dignified reception upon arrival to Europe primarily increase humanitarian needs at borders   

Olivia Sundberg, International Rescue Committee Senior Policy Advisor

This is “beyond being a human rights crisis”, she told webinar attendees. “It amounts to a rule of law crisis in Europe.” Sundberg condemned many EU policies which she said have led to a great number of “people sleeping rough, detained in conditions that are very detrimental to their mental health, [and] making it very hard for them to focus on their asylum interviews”.

The expert speakers also discussed the criminalisation of solidarity and volunteer work surrounding the dangerous routes taken by migrants to Europe. “Restrictions on NGOs that conduct search and rescue missions at sea alongside the criminalisation of volunteer work creates a perfect storm,” Shehada stated. These bureaucratic restrictions force “migrants and asylum seekers to take especially life-threatening and dangerous routes at sea to avoid detection, which increases fatalities as a result”.

Lemberg-Pedersen reiterated this, mentioning that “the instrumentalisation of migration is very likely to be used to criminalise people trying to do search and rescue”. Such developments serve as a way to “lower the standard of reception and protection for asylum seekers within the EU”, he said.

“This kind of criminalisation of solidarity is designed to alleviate the rise of unsafe passage routes”, Lemberg-Pedersen explained. “The future is pointing towards institutionalisation and the acceleration of these troubling dynamics.” AI is a tool being utilised in the EU to increase state surveillance on migrants, he told attendees, and there should be legislation that prohibits “automatic risk assessment, profiling, predictive and analytical systems, deception detectors, and remote biometric ID”.

Through hosting public events such as this webinar, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor demonstrates its commitment to addressing the harsh asylum laws that persist in the EU, and will continue to call attention to the harm these laws cause until adequate policy reforms are effectively implemented.