Perspectives: The Brussels Bubble

Refugee Issue and Migration

Judith Sunderland: You can’t stop people from moving – there will always be need and desire to do so

Interview of Judith Sunderland, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), with the Eteron project coordinator, Dimitris Rapidis.

What is the situation with regards to Ukrainian refugees in EU member-states? 

The EU did the right thing when it invoked, for the first time, the Temporary Protection Directive to ensure that people fleeing Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in February 2022 could remain in EU countries and have access to support. Since then, the EU has renewed temporary protection for Ukrainian refugees until March 2025. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), an umbrella group of nongovernmental organizations, argues that the EU should develop now a collective, harmonized plan to ensure protection and inclusion over the long-term. The use of the TPD was unprecedented and largely successful, and is an example of what the EU can do when it has the collective will. 


What policies could be adopted at the EU level to improve migration and asylum policies in EU member-states?  


Most observers agree that the EU asylum system has been dysfunctional and fragmented, with poor implementation of the EU directives that define the procedures and rules, and an unequal distribution of responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees. Instead of correcting these fundamental problems, EU institutions and member states have focused on deterrence measures in hopes of limiting the numbers of people arriving and creating a hostile environment for those who do make it. The EU is increasingly enlisting countries with terrible human rights records—Turkey, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia—to curb migration. The recently adopted Migration Pact reforms the EU asylum system in a way that will severely curtail rights. More people, including children, will be detained. Asylum applications will be processed in accelerated procedures that don’t have the same safeguards as normal asylum procedures. EU countries will be able to deny people the right to apply for asylum in situations of vaguely-defined “mass influx” or “instrumentalization of migrants by a third country or non-state actor.” The overhaul does little to fix the long-standing problem of countries on external borders having to take the lion’s share of responsibility for people who arrive irregularly. This means those countries, like Greece, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, and Spain continue to have an incentive to engage in unlawful pushbacks or ignore boats in distress at sea. 


So there is much that needs to be done to improve EU policies in this area! At a minimum, the EU should expand safe and legal channels for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees; ensure there are no pushbacks at its borders and that everyone has a fair chance to apply for asylum or argue a claim/reason to remain in the EU; ensure adequate accommodation and support, including for integration, for asylum seekers; share equitably the responsibility for people arriving on EU shores; ensure rescue at sea; and condition any migration cooperation with countries outside the EU on respect for human rights. 


Far-right parties across Europe continue to use migration inflows to spread anxiety and fear in societies. Why does hate speech against migrants and refugees seem to lead to bigger electoral gains for these parties? What is your take on that matter? 


These parties use messaging that describe migrants and refugees as either a threat—to security, for example, or to cultural identity—or competition—for jobs and public services, for example. That kind of messaging is very powerful and triggers a defensive reaction that is often immune to counter-arguments based on facts. People are more susceptible to this messaging when we are anxious or living with significant uncertainties. It’s important to note, however, that far-right and populist parties identify many different groups as “threats,” including at times feminists, LGBT people, or the elite. It is a tactic that taps into people’s fears to guide and manipulate those fears to achieve other aims, including power. Hope-based messaging—grounded in respect, human dignity, and human rights—can be just as powerful but doesn’t, unfortunately, get as much attention!


Is there a connection between low levels of media freedom and offensive narrative against refugees and migrants? And if so, what’s the first member-state that comes to your mind that you see this unwritten rule apply?


Just look at Hungary. Where there is government capture of the media and the government is anti-immigration, the space for alternative, positive narratives about migrants and refugees is limited.  


“The Pylos shipwreck appears to be another tragic example of Greek authorities’ abdication of responsibility for saving lives at sea”, you said in a recent report of HRW. Do you want to tell us more about that? 


On June 14, 2023, a boat carrying more than 750 people capsized off the coast of Greece, near Pylos. Only 102 people survived, making this one of the worst shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. In the 15 hours between receiving the first alert about the boat and when it capsized, Greek authorities failed to mobilize appropriate resources for a rescue, ignored offers for help from Frontex, and ignored what survivors say were direct appeals for rescue from people onboard. Survivors also say a Greek Coast Guard patrol boat caused the shipwreck when it attached a rope to the boat and attempted to tow it. 


Greece has a well-documented history of pushing and towing boats back to Turkey in the Aegean Sea and of obstructing the work of nongovernmental organizations trying to assist boats in distress. 



Many politicians in different member-states are talking about the need to deal with the refugee issue and migration without throwing away EU values. What does this mean to you?


The EU is supposed to be a collective of nations that share core values: human dignity and human rights, equality, freedom, and democracy and the rule of law. These values should inform and guide every area of policy-making, including when it comes to migrants and refugees. Allowing people to drown at sea, condemning people to arbitrary, violent detention in Libya, pushing people back at land and sea borders, detaining asylum seekers, hateful and racist speech against migrants and refugees…all trample on these core values. 


On numerous occasions the EU Council has issued statements underlying the need to deal with migration in a “collective way”. What does “collective” mean to you? 


The lack of cooperation and coordination among EU member states is a prominent feature of the way the EU handles migration. This leads to disputes among EU countries but most importantly, it leads to violations of the rights of migrants and refugees. Despite all the melodramatic rhetoric, the overall number of immigrants and asylum seekers in the EU is entirely manageable. This good management, or governance, of migration is possible with political will, evidence-based policy-making, sufficiently-resourced asylum and immigration systems, and a genuine sharing of responsibility. And it takes the recognition that human mobility has always been a fundamental part of the human existence. You can’t stop people from moving—there will always be need and desire to do so—but you can help people to move in safety and dignity and ensure we all live in just and rights-respecting societies

Judith Sunderland is Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, at Human Rights Watch (HRW) 

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