The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) is extremely concerned that a statement agreed by the European Council on 23 April in response to record numbers of migrants and refugees dying in the Mediterranean will lead to further closing of EU borders, risking more violations of human rights of migrants and more deaths to come.

The increasing number of deaths of migrants is closely linked to the EU’s policy priority to prevent irregular migration at the expense of migrants’ rights. Since 1999, when the EU adopted its common asylum and migration policy, more than 28,000 migrants have died at EU borders and in detention centres as a result of these policies.

The European Council has stated its commitment to prevent further loss of life at sea by tripling the financial resources of the EU operations Triton and Poseidon and strengthen presence at sea. However, the primary role of Frontex is border management; control and search and rescue is not its official mandate. The reinforcement of these operations will not fill the absence of a comprehensive rescue mission to save migrants’ lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

EU heads of state agreed to intensify the fight against smuggling and trafficking networks, including the identification and destruction of vessels before they are used by smugglers and traffickers. In this context, it remains to be seen on what legal basis the EU will conduct such operations. Increased intelligence and police cooperation with third countries may likely result in a shift of responsibility and accountability for human rights abuses even further off European shores. The Council has prioritised various countries to receive support – including Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Niger – states where the EU cannot guarantee that its human rights standards are safeguarded.

Contrary to recommendations made by various regional and UN bodies on the use of terminology, the Council refers repeatedly to ‘illegal’ migration in its statement. The use of “illegal” when referring to migration criminalises migrants and ignores the fact that all people have rights regardless of immigration status. By labelling migrants as ‘illegal’, the Council aims to legitimise questionable measures to prevent irregular migrants from coming to Europe. The term ‘illegal migrant’ normalises repressive law enforcement measures against migrants who pose no threat to society even before they have a chance to apply for international protection. In fact, “illegality” as a form of status has emerged over the course of the late twentieth century as a legally-justified category used to deprive a certain group of people of rights.

Although prioritising internal solidarity and responsibility among member states is a step in the right direction, the Council’s statement fails to sufficiently address why many migrants take unseaworthy boats – the numerous root causes and the lack of realistic and safe alternatives for this type of migration. EU leaders should allow for safe and regular channels for people to migrate both for international protection and for work opportunities in Europe.

Migration is not a criminal activity. Policy responses which treat it as such are ineffective and inappropriate and make migrants increasingly vulnerable to violence, exploitation and trafficking.

Equality of treatment and non-discrimination are basic human rights principles. A rights-based approach applied to migration would mean that all people have a right to leave their country, to uphold the right to family unity and that access to health care and other essential services is not denied on the basis of migration status. Undocumented migrants who experience violence or abuse should equally be able to access justice.

PICUM strongly welcomes the statements made during the past week of its member organisations and partners, and key human rights bodies and actors including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau – all reiterating the call for EU leaders to prioritise the human rights of migrants and refugees in the response to the current situation in the Mediterranean.

PICUM calls on the European Commission, which will release its European Agenda for Migration in May, to carefully demonstrate in its new agenda what a rights-based approach to migration entails, what reforms need to be put in place for an adequate labour migration policy and to carefully revisit the Council’s statement if future deaths at sea of migrants are to be prevented.

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