Judith Kohlenberger is a research associate at the Institute for Social Policy at WU Vienna, J. Olaf Kleist is a research associate and co-head of the specialized group “Democracy, Transfer and Policy Advice” at the German Center for Integration and Migration Research in Berlin. The article appears simultaneously in the Austrian newspaper “Die Presse”.
The new Pact on Migration and Asylum recently presented by the European Commission is a response to the EU’s chronic failure to find a common approach to refugee policy. The fact that the EU did not fail in 2015 due to its fragile asylum system was prevented only by advocacy for refugee rights and admission by some states, notably Germany and Austria.
The continued delay in European refugee protection reform, made possible by the isolation of refugees in slums on Greek islands, exploded this summer under the threat of a global pandemic.
However, the Commission’s reform proposal offers neither a lasting solution nor an immediate response to the pressing consequences of the failed migration policy. In the search for a common denominator between EU countries, the protection of refugees was sacrificed as a fundamental principle.
But even the task of painting asylum policy is not enough for those states, especially the Visegrád group: they question the value of universal rights that go far beyond the protection of refugees. Anyone who wishes to maintain the rule of law as the foundation of democratic institutions and values in Europe must not, and above all not sacrifice the rights of refugees.
The Commission’s proposals are incorrect and impractical
The failed and impractical proposal of the European Commission must therefore be fought with clear, urgent and positive impulses. Germany and Austria now have it in their hands to lead a human rights alliance for a democratic Europe and to send a confident signal to the entire EU by taking in refugees from Moria.
Germany and Austria have not always agreed on issues of European refugee policy. But they are linked not least by the common history of National Socialism, resulting in a plea for a refugee policy based on human rights.
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In the 1940s, Europe was the continent of displaced people with about 60 million refugees, a consequence of the Second World War sparked by Germany and Austria. The governments of the two states have not only proven that they could take many millions of these displaced people into their post-war societies – in part against the resistance of the local population. The Austrian and German exiles of National Socialism – such as Stefan Zweig and Anna Seghers, Lise Meitner and Albert Einstein – should rather remind us of the importance of refugees finding protection in democratic states.
Against this historical background, Germany and Austria must stand up not only for the admission of refugees, but also for respect for human rights and the protection of democracy and the rule of law.
The acceptance of some from Lesvos is more than just symbolic politics
The acceptance of even a small number of people from Lesvos is much more than just symbolic politics. On an individual level for each of us who is saved from the dire conditions in the camp. Because help on the spot, no matter how generous and well-intentioned, does not solve the situation.
This is also due to the fact that the people in Moria or in the newly established Kara Tepe camp have no turning back and no turning back: many EU Member States stubbornly refuse to accept them, but at the same time they don’t want to take Turkey back either. The people stranded in Greece cannot return to their unsafe countries of origin, where war and persecution continue, even in the long term.
For example, the thousands of men, women and children on Lesvos, with all the blankets and tents that our countries send, have no hope of a secure future. In the new Kara Tepe camp, too, the European Convention on Human Rights is constantly being violated.
Namely when asylum seekers have to sleep on the floor, have no access to sanitary facilities or drinking water, no access to medical care. Thousands of elderly and chronically ill people cannot be adequately cared for locally. Even minor infections like diarrhea can have fatal consequences, not to mention Corona. All of this is not resolved by aid that reaches those seeking protection – if at all – with great delay.
Just as little help on the ground solves the EU asylum patient, but rather increases the pressure in the kettle with seeing eyes – because that is what the new camp is. The refusal to grant refugees protection and rights in the EU plays into the hands of those who fundamentally reject a European refugee policy. The suspension of rights for those seeking protection in Europe touches the democratic core of the EU, namely its constitutional principles.
Refugees are the first to be deprived of their rights in authoritarian regimes
That is precisely why the admission of refugees from Moria is much more than just symbolic politics. It would be an act of a democratic alliance that does not allow refugee policy and thus the future of the EU to be determined by those national governments whose democratic values are sometimes called into question.
Because in Moria not only the rights of refugees are at stake, but also the protection of basic democratic rights for all of us. The acceptance of the disregard of fundamental rights for marginalized persons and minorities within the European borders paves the way to question these rights for any other group.
In states that have succumbed to authoritarianism, it can be noted everywhere that refugees and migrants are the first to be deprived of their rights – before questioning the rule of law and democratic principles as a whole.
Especially for countries like Germany and Austria, learning from history means resolute resistance to any form of violation of our fundamental and human rights. Dealing with those seeking protection thus becomes the litmus test for our democracy. Moria is also about ourselves.
Germany and Austria can now start a groundbreaking alliance based on shared memories of their own experiences in exile. Initially, only a few other states may follow. But those who are now making progress and doing what has historically been human and fundamental rights are pointing the way to the rescue not only of refugees, but also of a democratic and rights-based Europe.