Tuesday 25. January 2022
#208 - October 2017

"Europe is betraying its Christian values"

Fridolin Pflüger SJ, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Germany, is deeply concerned about the latest developments in European refugee policy.

Question: Father Pflüger, over the last few days, numerous aid organisations have cited attacks by Libyan coastguards as their reason for largely suspending their sea rescue operations for refugees in the Mediterranean. How do you assess the current situation?


Pflüger: For many years we’ve observed that refugees fleeing to Europe are being treated as criminals. Now we're deeply concerned to see that this criminalisation is being widened to cover even their rescuers. Libyan coastguards, with the blessing of the European Union, are carrying out more and more controls in the Mediterranean – and that looks ominous. By endorsing this action, Europe is reinforcing the vulnerability of the Libyan coast to raids carried out by criminal gangs and warlords.


Question: What are the consequences for the refugees who are stuck in Libya, hoping for a passage to Europe?


Pflüger: Libya is already using brutal methods to prevent refugees from crossing over to Europe. Instead, refugees are confined in detention centres, where they are subjected to extreme violence and abuse. What's more, many of those concerned would be entitled to apply for asylum in Europe, but European countries are doing everything they can to ensure that refugees cannot exercise their right to asylum there.


Question: What developments would you like to see rolling out in current policy?


Pflüger: Europe must stop shielding herself behind ruthless deals which, although concluded under the banner of migration control, serve no other purpose than to keep refugees off our backs in Europe. Once and for all, the EU must pave the way for safe and legal access routes. This would not render sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean superfluous, but would also deprive the smugglers of their trafficking in refugees.


Question: What can be done in concrete terms?


Pflüger: A first measure would be to build up the joint European sea rescue operations to at least the same level as Italy achieved in its “Mare Nostrum” operation in 2013. If policy favoured family reunification and the issue of humanitarian visas, and if more generous refugee quotas were agreed, many people could be saved from embarking on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. One thing is clear: it cannot possibly be right that one of the richest and most economically advanced continents in the world should simply stand on the sidelines and watch 65 million people fleeing from their countries all around the globe. With its present isolationist policy, the EU is betraying all its humanistic and Christian values. Indeed, as Pope Francis said some time ago: Europe is losing its soul.


Question: Surely on this topic Europe lost its soul long ago? Up till the present, EU Member States are in hot dispute about the distribution of refugees in Europe; it’s hard to envisage any spirit of solidarity forthcoming.


Pflüger: That’s so true. We really are missing the essential solidarity that glues us Europeans together. Even more so as the current “Dublin System” (according to which refugees must apply for asylum in the Member State where they first set foot in Europe) has proved for a very long time to be both unjust and completely impractical. Italy, for example, quite rightly feels that it has been left high and dry by the other EU Member States. We urgently need a fundamental reform of the “Dublin System” based on principles of solidarity.


Question: Surely not a lot will be achieved just by changing the rules in Europe?


Pflüger: You’re right. Ever since Autumn 2015, Europe has been using panic measures to stem the incessant flow of migrants from Africa. But a large majority of African refugees find refuge inside Africa itself. East Africa alone has accommodated more than four million refugees and around seven million internally displaced persons. While Europe is spending huge sums of money on defensive measures, there is a dramatic underfunding of international refugee aid programmes in important host countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. In the end, when refugees find no security or prospects for earning a living in Africa, they have no other choice than to continue their journey towards Europe. Europe could learn a great deal from a country like Uganda, which allocates farmland to refugees and grants them work permits, thereby empowering them to take care of themselves. This makes Uganda's asylum system one of the most generous and sustainable in the world.


Question: Coming back to our earlier question about sea rescues – Shouldn’t the Church together with her institutions get more actively involved in saving people from drowning? More specifically: Couldn’t the Jesuit Refugee Service provide a short-term solution for closing the gap in sea rescue?


Pflüger: Given the current circumstances, I don’t think we have the capacity. Besides, the official aid organisations have given fully justifiable reasons for their withdrawal from sea rescue operations. Nevertheless, the Jesuit Refugee Service is already active on both shores of the Mediterranean, working in the field directly with refugees. On top of that, it should not be forgotten that while the media have firmly focused their attention on the Mediterranean (which, by the way, is important because this is the region where people are dying avoidable deaths), the Church and her aid organisations are also active in many other regions where refugees are also dying in flight. For example, they perish on the escape routes through the Sahara, or refugees die while escaping from South Sudan, from Somalia, Yemen and Eritrea. Sadly, these are the stories that European media show very little interest in following. We should not allow the tragic events in the Mediterranean to hide these other events from view.


Steffen Zimmermann



Translated from the original text in German


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.