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Local remedies for the EU’s protracted migration policy crisis

Painting by the children of the 13th Primary School in Trikala (Greece), which won the 1st prize in the contest 'Opening hearts and minds to refugees' organised by UNESCO Associated Schools Network. Source: Municipality of Trikala


Tihomir Sabchev

Utrecht University/University College Roosevelt

In the context of recent failures to protect refugees’ human rights, how can EU Member States develop a more effective approach to manage the consequences of forced migration?

In the very beginning of his book ‘The Global Migration Crisis: Challenge to States and Human Rights’, the political scientist Myron Weiner notes that “the number of people fleeing to escape violence or persecution, to find employment, or to improve their own lives and those of their family members is greater than it has ever been” (pp. 1-2). The author describes some of the major migration policy changes in Europe in light of the “recent massive influx of migrants and refugees from the east” (p. 47). More concretely, he argues that “with the rise of antimigrant right-wing parties […], European governments have virtually halted migration and made entry difficult for refugees from Third World countries” (p. 145).

According to Weiner, the reluctance of EU Member States to accept refugees is expressed through a combination of actions that aim to deter exodus and facilitate repatriation, such as bi-lateral agreements with third countries, conditionality of development aid, introduction of the ‘safe country’ concept, and various efforts to discourage unfounded claims for international protection (p. 160-161). He notes that international organisations like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are encouraged by EU governments to assist displaced people in their regions of origin, and to promote non-exodus policies that limit irregular emigration (p. 161). Persuading people to remain where they are, however, may well mean putting at risk their lives (p. 156).

This quite accurate description of EU’s approach to forced migration can easily make the uninformed reader conclude that Weiner’s analysis refers to the developments of the last few years. In reality, however, he published the abovementioned book in 1995.

Paradoxical as it may seem, reading Weiner’s work today may be more revelatory than it was 25 years ago. Since the 1990s the number of displaced people in the world has doubled, reaching almost 80 million in 2019, while the number of asylum seekers in the EU has also increased. The “popular support in virtually every Western European country for antimigrant right-wing parties” (p. 49) which Weiner noted in 1995 has also been on the rise. It has brought such parties into government in a number of EU countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy) and threatens to undermine the foundations of Western democracy. In the meanwhile, human rights have been sinking in the Mediterranean and in the notorious hot-spots on the Greek islands. In short, it seems that EU governments’ policies have failed at both fronts – they have not reduced the number of people fleeing persecution and human rights violations, neither have they adequately addressed the consequences of refugee arrivals to Europe. In other words, rather than a migration crisis, the EU has been facing a protracted migration policy crisis. Not since 2015, but since the 1990s.

While the EU is in dire need of a more effective approach to forced migration, it is unreasonable – and to some extent even naïve – to expect that any drastic policy changes will be initiated by national governments or supranational institutions. ‘Prevent entrance and facilitate repatriation’ has become the mantra of migration governance. Externalisation of migration control, push backs and pull backs, restriction of movement on the Aegean islands and the construction of new closed centres for asylum seekers, are only a fraction of the practices that illustrate this. Moreover, EU Member States seem determined to continue implementing these practices, even when it is clear that this might lead to gross violations of human rights, as in the case of forced returns to Libya.

Against this backdrop, some recent bottom-up initiatives have offered a radically different approach to addressing the consequences of forced displacement and have promoted the opening of safe and legal pathways for refugees to Europe. In the heart of such initiatives one often finds a partnership of local actors – municipalities, NGOs, migrant organisations, churches, universities, etc. These actors design, fund and implement projects, which are in some cases subsequently recognised as good practices by national and international institutions.

An example in this regard is the ‘Humanitarian Corridors project. It was developed by several religious organisations and offers safe passage to Europe to displaced people residing in camps in the Middle East and Africa. These organisations – supported by a wide range of societal partners – cover the cost for pre-departure (e.g. identifying potential beneficiaries together with UNHCR), travel, and post-arrival activities (accommodation, food, basic services and integration support). At the same time, the national authorities of the country of destination screen and approve the final list of candidates, issuing them the necessary travel documents. In this way, central governments maintain their authority over whom to admit, while the transfer, reception and short-term integration of the beneficiaries also comes at near-zero cost to them. Thanks to this initiative, about 750 people in need of international protection have been arriving regularly to Italy and other European countries every year since 2016. In fact, this makes the Humanitarian Corridors more effective than the resettlement programs of the majority of EU Member States.

Another example of a recent bottom-up initiative that has opened safe and legal pathways for forced migrants to Europe is the project ‘University Corridors. Narrower in its scope, this project allows Eritrean refugee students who reside in Ethiopia to continue their postgraduate education in Italy. Developed on the initiative of a single professor from the University of Bologna, the project has now expanded to 10 other universities across the country.

Importantly, both the Humanitarian and the University Corridors have earned the recognition of the Italian authorities for their contribution to facilitating safe and orderly migration. Both projects were created through memoranda of understanding signed with the Italian Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. However, in spite of these and other positive examples of similar bottom-up initiatives enhancing refugee protection, their diffusion across the EU remains limited. Since such projects apparently do not represent a burden on the state budgets of the host countries, one could assume that the main concern of Member States’ governments relates to eventual political costs. Such concerns, however, seem unfounded. In fact, community-based refugee sponsorship contributes to building more welcoming communities at local and national level, and to combating xenophobic narratives.

Back in the 1990s, as Weiner pointed out, it was “axiomatic” that states were the ones dealing with the matters and consequences of forced migration governance (p.9). “At the end of the day” – he writes in the very last sentence of his book – “states will not and cannot allow others to decide who will permanently live and work in their own societies” (p.222). While national governments are still the ultimate decision makers as to whom to admit, the potential of subnational actors to influence their decisions has increased. Initiatives like the Humanitarian and the University Corridors demonstrate the capacity of local actors to develop innovative and effective ways of managing the consequences of forced migration. Not only do they contribute to the protection of displaced people, but they also challenge the widespread TINA (There Is No Alternative) logic that continues navigating migration policy making in the EU. Strengthening and scaling up these and other similar local innovations in migration governance can – at least partially – provide remedies for the EU’s protracted migration policy crisis, without challenging state sovereignty.  



Tihomir Sabchev is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University School of Law. His research focuses on the role of local authorities in the reception and integration of forced migrants in Greece and Italy.

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