The EU’s migration policies and the end of human rights in Europe

The direction Brussels is taking on migration policies risks eroding the international legal order.

A survivor who was rescued at open sea off Greece along with others, after their boat capsized, reacts outside a warehouse used as a shelter, at the port of Kalamata, Greece, June 15, 2023. REUTERS/Stelios Misinas TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A survivor of the Pylos shipwreck grieves outside a warehouse used as a shelter, at the port of Kalamata, Greece on June 15, 2023 [File: Reuters/Stelios Misinas]

In January, Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis featured prominently at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Among the various topics, he was asked to comment on was migration. “Greece has probably managed the migration problem better than most other European countries,” he said confidently in an interview with CNN’s Richard Quest on the sidelines of the forum. “We won a resounding victory [in the elections] partly because we succeeded in managing the migration through a tough but fair migration policy.”

But this “tough but fair migration policy” resulted in the death of more than 500 people, including 100 children, in a single incident of a migrant boat sinking off the Greek coast near Pylos on June 14. The Greek coastguard has been accused of causing what is considered one of the worst maritime disasters in the Mediterranean by attempting to tow the boat to Italian territorial waters.

The Greek authorities have denied responsibility and instead arrested nine of the survivors, blaming them for causing the shipwreck. As Mitsotakis headed for Davos, the investigation was closed and handed to the prosecution, after requests by the survivors’ lawyers to consider important evidence in their defence were rejected.

The injustice and shocking disregard for human life in this story are not an aberration, but the culmination of a policy of systematic denial of protection and violation of the rights of refugees. And they are also reflected in the new migration pact the European Union has just concluded.

The tragic stories of death at European borders and the lack of action on them indicate the direction in which Europe is headed, united under a far-right “law and order” flag and racist anti-migrant policies. It is towards a dark future in which human rights will could come to an end.

A racist EU migration pact

The issue of migration has always been a useful political tool and one of the cornerstones of the far right in Europe. But in the past decade, the rest of the political spectrum has also increasingly instrumentalised and gradually adopted it in a desperate attempt to improve declining electoral fortunes. As a result, European migration policies have taken a sharp turn to the right, reflecting more and more closely the far right’s racist agenda and a rhetoric of exclusion of non-Europeans.

The new “Migration Pact” of the EU is a case in point. The European Parliament and the European Council reached a provisional agreement on it five days before Christmas. Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament, called it a “historic day”; human rights organisations called it a “disaster”. On February 8, EU member states approved it, and it is now pending final formal endorsement by the EU Parliament and the European Council.

The regulations that the pact will introduce will cover all stages of the asylum process: from screening asylum seekers upon arrival and collection of biometric data to rules for determining which member state is responsible for handling their applications. The provisions, which are meant to “fundamentally change how we deal with migration and asylum”, however, contain numerous gaps which allow for abuse and further strengthening of violent policies at EU borders.

Rights organisations have pointed out that the pact can usher in the detention of asylum seekers, including families with children, in prison-like facilities; lead to more violence by border authorities; and allow deportation to unsafe third countries.

It will not provide a safe and dignified path to the asylum-seeking procedure that could save lives and it will not prevent tragedies like the Pylos shipwreck from repeating. Instead, as Amnesty International notes, the new pact will result in “a surge in suffering on every step of a person’s journey to seek asylum” in Europe.

Additionally, countries like Poland and Hungary have rejected the relocation mechanism, under which they would have to accept refugees. The pact gives them the alternative option to pay 20,000 euros ($21,550) per refugee; in other words, they can pay their way out of their obligations under European and international law.

This means not only that there will be an even heavier burden put on countries at the EU’s external borders, but that basic legal norms on the protection of refugees are being eroded.

A dark future for Fortress Europe

Overall, the migration pact reflects a tendency within the EU to shrink the scope of international law to the point where it becomes irrelevant to those whom it was created to protect.

Failing to put in place a common European asylum system with clear rules and regulations, not lifting the pressure from entrance countries, further militarising border control, and outsourcing the problem of migration to third countries reflect the EU’s continuing effort to dodge its obligations under international law towards asylum seekers.

The long-term effect of ignoring and downplaying international legal norms is the potential collapse of the global international system, which would mean the end of the human rights regime as we know it.

Another disturbing aspect of Europe’s migration pact asylum policy is that it discriminates between people seeking asylum. The EU announced that its provisions will not apply to Ukrainian refugees. In other words, Brussels officially applies international law selectively; it openly declares that people of a certain race are deserving of a pathway to safety and others are not.

This is all the more egregious considering that the migration pact is meant to keep away people fleeing conflict and other crises in Africa and the Middle East, which European countries are often directly involved in.

By clearly and formally discriminating between who is deserving of a safe and legal route of asylum-seeking and migration and who is not, the EU is setting a dangerous precedent. Discrimination over the right to request protection under international law and the allocation of different rights for different groups opens the door to legal apartheid.

It appears the EU has appointed itself as the arbiter of who has the right to life and dignity and who does not. This is apparent in its reaction to the war in Gaza as well.

Europe has turned a blind eye to the accusations of genocide in Gaza, as European countries continue selling weapons to Israel and parroting its outrageous argument about “its right to self-defence” from a population it occupies.

It is important to note here that among the most fervent pro-Israeli forces in Europe is the far right which is using the war in Gaza to push its agenda, promote ideas of cultural war, and whitewash its anti-Semitism.

Support for the far right is surging in Europe and that is not because of “illegal migration” as some EU officials, like Ylva Johansson, commissioner for home affairs, have claimed. It is because European “centrist conservatives”, like Mitsotakis, have embraced the far right’s agenda for their own narrow political and economic interests.

This will certainly be reflected in the upcoming European parliamentary elections scheduled for June.

If there is no profound overhaul of the antihuman and inhumane direction European politics and policies are taking, the future of the EU looks very dark. As it stands now, we are on a straight path towards a Europe where the Viktor Orbáns, Geert Wilderss and Marine Le Pens will have a much stronger say about what is on the agenda and what is not.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.