If the EU is to be the bastion of liberal democracy, it too must stop demonizing refugees and migrants


European Union officials have not hesitated to voice their condemnation of the permanent ban imposed by US President Donald Trump on Syrian refugees and the temporary ban on all other refugees. Well Named. The Vice-President of the European Commission Federica mogherini, speaking at the European Parliament, said:

The EU will not turn back anyone who is entitled to international protection. This is where we will continue to stand.

But we must not lose sight of what the EU and its Member States are actually doing on the ground. Huge resources have been deployed to prevent refugees and vulnerable migrants from reaching the EU by sealing the Aegean route from Turkey to Greece, the Balkan route from Greece to Germany and the Mediterranean route from Morocco and Senegal to Spain.

Relations with Libya

One main road remains uncontrollable: the central Mediterranean route via Libya. This is not due to a lack of will on the part of the EU to compromise on its fundamental principles by concluding agreements with regimes with questionable human rights records such as Sudan and Eritrea. This is linked to the ongoing political and military struggle in Libya, which means that control over territory and coastline is fragmented. The Libyan Coast Guard exists on paper but has a rather limited territorial scope.

End of January, before a see you on February 3 EU leaders in Malta, which currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU, the EU announced that the Libyan authorities will step up their efforts to stop migration across the Mediterranean. Thanks also to a Check of 200 M € EU, the UN-backed Libyan government has also agreed to allow EU and NATO vessels involved in the Operation Sophia anti-smuggling mission to operate alongside the national military coast guards in Libyan waters. This is where many of the shipwrecks that have caused the deaths of thousands of migrants have occurred in recent years.

Given the current political uncertainty, a total halt to sea crossings may be out of reach for the time being. What is more likely is that, in order to at least reduce migration flows, the Libyan authorities will be prepared to further compromise the human rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants.

In research my colleagues and I did on boat migration in the Mediterranean, we found evidence of appalling living conditions among migrants in Libya. Over 75% of people we spoke to reported experiences of physical violence there, and almost a third (29%) saw fellow travelers die. Many interviewees also referred to the direct and indirect involvement of the Libyan police and coastguard in such episodes of violence.

The Libyan Red Crescent carrying a bag containing the body of a migrant stranded off the Libyan coast in November 2016.
STR / EPA

If closing the central Mediterranean route means turning a blind eye to the violence, the situation for refugees and migrants is likely to worsen further in the future. While Libya’s increased role in stopping boat migration also implies a reduction in the EU’s commitment to search and rescue, migrant deaths at sea are likely to increase, a trend which is also emerging in the latest International Organization for Migration data on missing and dead migrants in Mediterranean.

Fortress Europe and Trump’s Wall

Moral condemnation has been pronounced by EU politicians against Trump’s plans to build an “physical wall, tall, beautiful and powerful“between the United States and Mexico. Mogherini characterized Trump’s wall like the opposite what the EU stands for with these words:

We have a history, a tradition and an identity built on the fact that we celebrate when walls are knocked down and bridges are built.

We heard similar grandiose rhetoric in 2015. This time the target was an EU member state, Hungary, and the occasion was the building a wall prevent refugees from crossing via the Balkan route. Again, rightly so, but then as now, EU officials seem to suffer, rather conveniently, from selective memory loss.

In this case, they forgot that EU member states had already built fences using technology similar to Hungary’s in Greece, Bulgaria and Calais, France. In fact, EU states have built similar walls since (without the reprimand from the EU) – for example, at the borders between Greece and Macedonia, Austria and Slovenia, and Croatia and Serbia.

So, while the rhetoric has certainly been divergent between the United States and the EU since Trump took office, in practice there are many substantial points of convergence between the two sides of the Atlantic as regards concerns the treatment of refugees and migrants.

What we are seeing instead is the use of refugees and migrants as a rhetorical device in a war of words that underlies more substantial geopolitical change. It is a situation in which the EU feels threatened on several fronts, notably by the United States led by Trump, and wants to position itself as the bastion of liberal democracy in the global battle for hearts and minds.

In a recent letter to members of the Council of the EU, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, spoke of the strategic challenges ahead for the EU. He Explain:

It is only together that we can be independent. We must take bold and spectacular steps which would change collective emotions and rekindle the aspiration to take European integration to the next level.

The first signs are that a number of Member States are unwilling to follow the EU’s lead and are more inclined, whether out of conviction or electoral opportunism, to embrace the populist anti-immigration turn championed by Trump.


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