The EU’s migration and anti-racism policies: are we ready for a racism-free Europe?

The EU’s migration and anti-racism policies: are we ready for a racism-free Europe?

This blog is the second in a two-part series looking at the intersection between racism and migration policy, and was authored by Abigail Cárdenas Mena, former Advocacy Trainee at PICUM.

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, an African-American man, was killed by police in the US. The recording of his last moments and words travelled the world, sparking mass protests against police brutality and racial injustice around the globe. Four months later, on 18 September, the European Commission presented the EU’s first Anti-Racism Action Plan as a response to the ever-growing demands for racial equality and justice in Europe.

EU’s commitment to anti-racism: ambitious but still fragile

The new EU Anti-Racism Action Plan is meant to be the strategy for the next five years to step up action to counter racial discrimination and racism within the EU. It sets a clear goal: ensuring equal treatment and rights for all to “make a racism-free EU a reality”. The plan is ambitious in its scope and has been welcomed by anti-racist organisations in Europe. It is the first time structural, institutional and historical racism have been acknowledged by the EU. This is a key step towards recognising, understanding and tackling the different ways in which racism operates. Colonialism, slavery and the Holocaust are explicitly mentioned in the Action Plan when addressing the need to acknowledge and teach the historical roots of racism, as is the need to mainstream racial equality and anti-racism in EU and national policies, from digital technologies to migration. Consistent with the motivation behind its publication, the Commission specifically addresses discriminatory policing towards racialised communities in Europe, including racial or ethnic profiling, recognised as unlawful and damaging for reporting of crimes.

“Progress on fighting racism and hate is fragile – it is hard won but very easily lost”, said president Ursula von der Leyen during the State of the Union Address when announcing the Anti-Racism Action Plan. Unfortunately, she could not be more right. Only a few days later, the Commission released a new Pact on Migration and Asylum that has a strong focus on increasing the number of migrants to be returned and setting border procedures that will increase their detention. This document shows the EU’s focus on increasing its protection of borders as the key component of its new migration strategy.

The end of 2020 saw political reactions from European governments and the EU targeting migrants and the Muslim community in the wake of the attacks that took place between October and November 2020 in Austria and France. As highlighted by Statewatch, the statement adopted by the EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers on 13 November “single out migrants (explicitly) and Muslims (implicitly) as a problem. Measures proposed to fight terrorism linked extremism to the failure of migrants to integrate, and to the need to strengthen protection of the EU’s external borders and increase policing, security and surveillance. Despite NGOs’ concerns about the conflation of counter-terrorism and integration, prevention of radicalisation and extremism finally made its way into the Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion of migrants and EU citizens with a migrant background, published on 24 November. Two weeks later, the EU Counter-Terrorism Agenda was published following the same narrative on Muslims and migrants. Human rights organisations have warned about the discriminatory impact of these policies and discourses and underlined that “Europe’s top-down counter-terrorism measures are reminiscent of a colonial approach to ‘managing’ Muslims often perceived as a problem in Europe, including through migration.”

The EU Migration and Asylum Pact: losing progress on fighting racism

“It’s very painful for me that in the 21st century, we the Black people are just like nothing. to matter, like seriously, it has to be in the Central Mediterranean, it has to matter in Libya. (…) For me, Europe has to do more to prove that Black life really matters”. These are the words of Souleman, a man from Cameroon rescued from the Central Mediterranean last summer after a long and harsh journey to Europe. The testimony of Souleman is a powerful cry for anti-racist demands to reach migrants, especially black Africans, and migration issues.

The Pact on Migration and Asylum came with five legislative proposals and four recommendations to be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council. The results of their agreements will have an immense impact on migrants trying to reach Europe and already present in Europe. Although the Pact stresses the need for a comprehensive European framework on migration that provides “decent conditions for the men, women and children arriving in the EU” and that “allow Europeans to trust that migration is managed in an effective and humane way”, it does not honour its own words. Instead, another sentence better summarises the Pact’s main motivation: “EU migration rules can be credible only if those who do not have the right to stay in the EU are effectively returned”. Around this idea, the Pact builds a whole system intended to identify who has the right to stay and who does not, and increase the deportation of those left without the right.

Furthering the race-making impact of migration policies

Bordering is always a way of race-making. It determines who is eligible for citizenship and political membership, maintaining historical hierarchies of belonging, but also creating new ones. “As people concerned with challenging racism and defending people’s right to move around, we have to be alert to how movement and controls on movement produce and reconfigure racial distinctions and hierarchies in the present (even if they are not named in racial terms)”, says researcher de Noronha.

The Pact is predominantly about preventing irregular migration, the type of migration that is left for people who cannot access regular pathways to Europe. Access to permits and regular pathways are not available for all migrants  and depend to a large extent on their country of origin. The racial impact is clarified by the UN Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on Contemporary forms of Racism: “States regularly engage in racial discrimination in access to citizenship, nationality or immigration status through policies and rhetoric that make no reference to race, ethnicity or national origin, and that are wrongly presumed to apply equally to all”. In Europe this is clear: “especially in former colonial territories, long-standing citizenship and nationality laws often discriminate against indigenous peoples or persons belonging to racial and ethnic minorities, in ways that reinforce ethno-nationalist conceptions of political membership.” The border procedures proposed in the Pact apply only to those who cross borders irregularly, setting the first filter and (racial) distinction. A further distinction based on nationality is also included here, as the border procedures only apply to people coming from a country with a rate of positive asylum decisions below 20%, which will lead to discrimination on the grounds of nationality.

After a pre-entry screening procedure where these migrants will be automatically detained, the Pact introduces a binary approach where everyone who does not apply for asylum should be forcefully returned, thus leaving no room for other pathways to regularisation and access to permits. The decision on asylum then determines the right to stay. But the asylum system is poorly adapted for addressing the many reasons people might seek protection, leaving some people outside, not to mention all the people who are not seeking protection but just decent labour opportunities.

People who are considered to pose a threat to national security or public order will be sent to the asylum border procedure – an accelerated procedure where people are likely to be returned and could be detained for up to three months. The construction of certain communities as a threat – to which counter-terrorism narratives have contributed – raises questions about the risk of discriminatory targeting of racialised communities.

Exacerbating discriminatory policing, racial profiling and police violence

The Pact foresees the pre-entry screening procedure to be applied also to people already in the EU when “there is no indication” that they crossed the border regularly. Thus, undocumented people will be apprehended inside the European countries where they are residing and might be detained for up to three days to be “screened” – identification, registration in databases, security checks and that will determine their status and their fate.

This poses serious concerns about increased discriminatory policing and racial profiling targeting communities of colour in Europe. Racial profiling is a widespread reality in Europe and works under the ethnonationalist conception that equates belonging to racial or ethnic minorities with being a foreigner. A FRA study from 2014 showed that 79% of surveyed border guards at airports rated ethnicity as a helpful indicator – alongside the way people behave when approaching a checkpoint and during the check (96% and 98%), destination (85%) and nationality (90%) – to identify people attempting to enter the country in an irregular manner before speaking to them. There is ever-growing evidence that discriminatory policing is accompanied by the excessive use of force and violence against racialised – including undocumented – people, including incidents leading to death.  The Pact’s proposed return sponsorship creates the possibility for EU member states to provide mutual support for the deportation of migrants, rather than for relocating them. To do so, member states can “choose the nationality of people to be supported for return, based on the readmission agreements signed and the highest possibility of expulsion”. Besides the inequalities this will create based on origin, this will contribute to discriminatory stops and searches and racial profiling according to nationality and will exacerbate existing practices of raids based on racial and ethnic criteria to fill charter flights for deportation to those countries.

Unequal external relations to ensure forced returns

At the time Spain was removing the razor wires from its fences with Morocco to make them more “humane”, Morocco was adding razor-wired fence on its side of the border with EU funds. The externalisation of borders has moved responsibility and accountability for the consequences of the EU’s own migration control policies away from the EU, culminating in the impunity of the system. “We have been crying over years that Libya is not a ground for people, but Europe pretends as if it’s not hearing”, said Souleman. “Tackling the issues we see today – the loss of life first and foremost, but also shortcomings in migration management – means working together so that everyone assumes their responsibilities”, states the Pact. It is hard to see how the EU is assuming its own.

And yet one area where there seems to be major consensus within the Commission and the Council is the external dimension of the Pact. The proposal gives a strong push to bilateral agreements and partnerships with third countries (though the main focus is on African countries, underlined over and over by different EU leaders) to cooperate on migration control, forced returns and readmission of migrants. These countries often have to be coerced or pressured into accepting “double win for Europe” partnerships where their interests on regularisation or mobility are excluded from the discussion, says the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. As a way to pressure them, the EU subordinates policy priorities related to visas, development aid, financial support, regular pathways and others, on collaboration on readmission – indispensable for the EU’s goal to enforce returns. Such conditionalities do not speak to the “mutually beneficial” relations that the Pact claims to pursue, but instead confirms once again that “EU migration policy is a one-way affair”.

International relations with the global South (former colonies) and its inhabitants are central to the fight for racial justice globally and to overcoming historical relationships of dominance. The EU’s insistence on setting top-down agendas with predefined objectives raises questions about the expansion of EU sovereignty over other territories, attempting to manage the mobility of people not only within its territory but far beyond. This has been evidenced by the expansion of the EU’s borders in Africa, which comes with a high cost for human rights and the lives of African people. Impediments to the free movement of Africans can only remind us of their forced mobility during slavery. Similarities like these are not unique to the African continent. How Europe controls the migration of people from the global South today is very much rooted in its colonial past. Not only the EU’s commitment to global justice and reparation is missing in the Pact, but solidarity is invoked between EU countries (to enforce deportations) and not with the global South and its people.

How to ensure rights for all, including migrants: building on the Anti-Racism Action Plan

Migration and (the fight against) racism cannot be compartmentalised. To live up to its commitments on racial justice, the EU cannot carry out two parallel agendas on migration and anti-racism, respectively; instead, it should bring both policy areas into dialogue so that decisions about migration contribute to the fight for racial justice and actions on anti-racism contribute to a fair system of migration for all. There are several steps that the EU can take, building on the new Anti-Racism Action Plan.

  1. Mainstream anti-racism in migration policies, integrating the racial equality dimension throughout the legal and policy EU framework on migration. This will also involve looking at the specific ways structural, institutional and individual racism are faced by migrants in Europe (including at the borders) and devising concrete measures to fight against it.
  2. Counter discriminatory policing and racial profiling. The EU must tackle police brutality and racist abuses by law enforcement to protect those who are most likely to experience it, regardless of migration status. “Everyone should feel safe in Europe” and migration and border controls cannot be put before the safety, rights and lives of people. Strong accountability measures and access to justice are key to address this problem and the EU should make them available within the EU, at its borders and beyond – wherever its migration policies are implemented.
  3. Ensure “real mutually beneficial” partnerships with third countries. Moving forward, the EU’s relationship with the global South cannot replicate the unequal arrangements rooted in past colonial ties to impose its own agenda and goals – an agenda that harms the very people concerned. To avoid perpetuating neo-colonial dominance, the EU must mainstream anti-racism in its foreign policy (across all areas), instead of mainstreaming migration control, and work on global justice and reparation measures. Further recommendations on how to ensure “real mutually beneficial” partnerships with third countries have been put forward by migrant rights advocates.
  4. Teach the past to understand the present. Acknowledge and teach the historical roots of racism to foster a better understanding of migration in the present and counter ahistorical and race-blind approaches to migration policies.
  5. Promote narratives consistent with the dignity of all. In addition to combatting disinformation and racist and xenophobic messages in the media, EU institutions should promote the same regarding political discourse targeting migrant and racialised communities. This will help to fight against ethnonationalist rhetoric that fosters discrimination of such groups.

A real commitment to anti-racism implies ensuring rights for the whole community: from EU citizens from racial or ethnic minorities to migrants from the same minorities, regardless of their status and the way they cross borders. As stressed in the Anti-Racism Action Plan, “everyone in the EU should be able to enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms”. But citizenship, nationality and immigration status remain the first formal – and racialised – barrier to the full enjoyment of human rights that states have at their disposal. For this reason, it is essential to understand how the EU is shaping irregularity, who is made “irregular” and the racial impact of this, and to continue to demand rights for all, irrespective of status, and regular and accessible pathways to Europe.

The statement was published three days after a mini-summit with key EU leaders to respond to the attacks where Islam was directly targeted. It also underwent several modifications to remove references to Islam and Muslims before the final version, but there is still a strong focus on religious extremism and the explicit mention of the so-called “islamist” attack in France.

People who do not apply for asylum are immediately deported or denied entry, while those who apply are sent to asylum (border or normal) procedures where, if their application is refused, will also be forcefully returned.

Cover image: Amy Elting- Unsplash