International Migrants’ Day – Changing the Narrative

By Michele LeVoy,
PICUM Director.

Dear colleagues and friends,

Today we commemorate International Migrants’ Day, and at the same time, a year comes to an end in which irregular migration has taken centre stage in political and public debates in a way we have not seen since PICUM was founded nearly fifteen years ago.

This year, a record number of migrants have both arrived as well as died on their way to Europe, while EU governments have squabbled with each other about how responsibility for rescue and reception should be shared. What has become known as a ‘migration crisis’ is not a crisis caused by migrants but the result of a lack of political will to establish more regular and safe channels for migrants and refugees and substantially increase reception capacities to reflect emerging realities, coupled with the range of factors which drive increased numbers of people to leave their countries of origin or residence.

It was a welcome surprise to see how civil society’s efforts to assist arriving migrants and refugees suddenly gained public attention and how the ‘Refugees Welcome’ movement rapidly spread across Europe in dimensions never seen before. How this new public movement has been urging more solidarity and openness, while at the same time coming up with innovative solutions to provide the most basic services such as food and shelter.

However, the response from our political leaders has for the most part not reflected this shift in public opinion. Despite the flaws in European immigration and asylum policy being exposed by the scale of current movements, the policy response feels all too familiar. The idea that ‘genuine’ refugees will be recognised, received and integrated, while all those considered ‘not to be in need of protection’ are swiftly deported is not new, and has led to systematic human rights violations, undeclared work and exploitation, poverty and destitution, and increased xenophobia and social tensions.

While the solidarity movement draws on Europe’s values, this year has also seen a rise in racism and xenophobia, with far-right and populist policy makers-playing on fears in the population to scapegoat and discriminate against migrants and refugees. Toleration of racism and xenophobia risks creating a hostile climate towards migrants, particularly those who are irregular, that can easily spread beyond right-wing groups and beyond migrants, reaching and affecting large parts of the population.

We have to recognise that it is highly likely that the undocumented population in Europe will grow in the coming years. Not all of those who are currently applying for international protection will be granted with status, and at the same time, not all who do not receive status, whose status is only temporary or those irregular migrants who are never registered by authorities, will return or be deported to their countries of origin. While those who do not meet governments’ strict definition of a ‘refugee’ are frequently considered undeserving or even ‘illegal’, leading to the perception that it is justified to deny them their rights and prosecute them, we must go beyond the solidarity extended by citizens and civil society to implement public policies that ensure the rights of all migrants, regardless of status. It is essential for governments to both meet immediate reception needs, and invest now in systemic and structural reform.

As we move into the New Year, we face these significant challenges, while also recognising several pivotal opportunities to move forward, in partnership at all levels.

We will continue to advocate for inclusion of undocumented migrants in social and employment policies. The EU has set itself social targets through the Europe 2020 Strategy, the European Union’s ten-year growth strategy, including investment in employment and education, improved social inclusion and poverty reduction. The EU’s poverty target aims to lift at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and social exclusion by 2020. Particularly in view of the disproportionate risks migrants face of poverty and social exclusion, human rights violations and discrimination, it is crucial for the broader implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy to include migrants irrespective of their status, to meaningfully make progress towards social objectives for the most disadvantaged.

Advocating for more rights-based regular channels for men, women and children to come to Europe, access to secure and independent residence, and routes out of irregularity, will continue to be priorities in the coming year. The European Commission’s 2016 work plan states that EU policymakers will present a renewed approach on labour migration. We will push for these policy measures to ensure opportunities, and address exploitation, in low wage sectors.

At the same time, we have to further promote the ‘firewall’, the clear separation between immigration enforcement and service providers, which would enable undocumented migrants to report exploitation and abuse without fearing immigration law enforcement. In 2015, new EU legislation came into force that recognises that all victims of crime – including those who are undocumented – should be able to access services and justice. The new “Victims’ Directive” thus includes a firewall principle in theory, but the real test will be how we work together with a wide range of partners to ensure that this is the reality in practice.

Our plans to monitor and report on the direct impacts on individuals and communities of enforcement actions, including the use of immigration detention, will be all the more pertinent. We will need to be ready to challenge practices that violate fundamental rights, including children’s rights, and safeguards in EU law.

Collaborative work towards a rights-based and child-centred approach to all children in migration, regardless of status will continue to be central, and supported by efforts to communicate the harmful impacts of immigration control measures on rights, education, health, well-being, participation and development in the medium and long term.

We would like to use the occasion of today’s International Migrants’ Day to appeal to you to continue your support of undocumented migrants, and our work to secure their rights in these and other areas. It is only through cooperation at all levels that we can bring about change. We would also like to thank our members and partners who took photos as part of our joint action in the run-up to this day highlighting their key demands and concerns on poster messages.

In this context, we would like to thank you again for your support and continuous efforts throughout this year and look forward to continuing our joint work.

Kind regards,

Michele LeVoy
PICUM Director

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