EU countries downplay ‘humanitarian visas’ for migrants

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In the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy, in which hundreds of African migrants lost their lives, the EU's 28 home affairs ministers met in Brussels on Thursday (5 December) to come up with a set of measures to tackle massive migration, but seemed more focused on border security rather than refugees' protection.

At the Brussels meeting, Cecilia Malmström, the EU's Home Affairs Commissioner, presented proposals contained in the Commission's 'Task force for the Mediterranean' (TFM), a new set of measures aimed at addressing migration flows at the EU’s southern borders.

But EU countries are much more focused on border security aspects than on protecting refugees and asylum seekers, the Commissioner admitted afterwards.

European member states have exercised 'heavy influence' in the drafting of the recommendations, said Yves Pascouau senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.

“The TFM is extensive on security issues and cooperation with third countries, but very short on asylum and protection issues,” Pascouau told EurActiv.

Indeed, the 20-page communication dedicates barely a page and a half to reinforcing “legal ways to access Europe”.

The Commission wants to push more member states to engage in resettlement plans, as currently only 11 countries have agreed to participate in the UN programme for Syrian refugees, by offering €6,000 per resettled refugee.

'Humanitarian visas' rejected

A more controversial measure in the TFM proposes allowing asylum seekers to apply for visas from outside Europe, which would spare them the risk of embarking on dangerous journeys like the one in Lampedusa.

However, Malmström conceded that member states were “less enthusiastic” at this idea of “humanitarian visas”.

The Commission's recommendation to allow such humanitarian entries into Europe was welcomed by the UNHCR, the UN body dealing with refugees, “as a key area of action to reinforce legal ways to access Europe".

"This includes humanitarian visas and increased resettlement places for those who are most vulnerable," said Dan McNorton from the UNHCR. "Creating legal migration alternatives to dangerous irregular movements, including resettlement, access to family reunion options and other methods should be a priority,” he told EurActiv in a written statement.

Marietje Schaake, a Liberal Member of the European Parliament, praised the Commission suggestion but said they were merely “ad-hoc measures” in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis.

More than two million Syrians are fleeing their homes, the majority in neighbouring Turkey or Jordan. Only 4% of Syrians found shelter inside the EU, with only 5 EU countries taking 70% of those refugees, “all of them in Northern Europe”, Malmström said.

The lack of interest for the Syrian crisis in particular was highlighted by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday. Speaking at a press event, the Commissioner said that “the reception in Europe of the Syrian refugee crisis is less welcoming than for previous crises like Afghanistan,” attributing this to the economic difficulties the continent is facing.

“There is a real reluctance in the EU to take in refugees from Syria, the humanitarian approach in this conflict has been overshadowed by things like the chemical weapon deal, which is only a small piece, and the fragile opening with Iran,” Schaake said.

“Extremist grew stronger on both sides, we’ve seen young people on the news joining the jihadists, all this has led people to believe that Syria is a big mess and that there’s no one to align with,” she added explaining that in her own country, the Netherlands, refugees were considered as “a threat” by the government.

No major breakthrough

The Mediterranean task force report will be discussed at the next meeting of EU heads of states and governments scheduled on 19 and 20 December in Brussels.

However, an EU source told EurActiv that no major breakthrough was expected at the summit meeting.

“The Council will most likely endorse the recommendations but no concrete further orientations are expected to be given in the short term," the source said adding that "there will probably be a reference to the next Council in June 2014 to come back on the issue”.