Providing people in need with safe access to shelter in Europe
The European Union and its Member States finally need to take their legal and moral responsibilities seriously and open up secure legal channels for shelter for people in need in Europe.
Jean-Claude is in mourning. This man from the Congo has lived in Belgium for years. His adult son wanted to follow him, but this was not legally possible because the immigration of family members is only permitted for spouses and children. So his son managed to travel across Tunisia in order to board a boat for the crossing to Italy. Then there was no further word from him until his name was found on a list recording the victims of a boat accident.
A lot of families have experienced the same loss of fugitive relatives as Jean-Claude. The United Nations estimates that, in this year alone, over 3,000 people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean while attempting to seek shelter in Europe. Most of the them were fleeing from war, violence and serious human rights violations. The largest group of refugees escaping by boat come from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia - all countries where indiscriminate violence makes life unbearable.
Europe should in fact offer these people shelter and safety – that was the promise made by the politicians after the catastrophic boat accident in October 2013. Pope Francis stepped in with emphatic words in support of the refugees. The European Union and the Member States did make a promise to do more for people in need.
All gone and forgotten. The Italian navy has rescued tens of thousands of people in distress at sea since October 2013. However their “Mare Nostrum” operation is about to end as the EU is not prepared to take responsibility for it. A “Mediterranean Taskforce”, which was supposed to develop proposals for new policies was just old wine in new bottles: their focus was on combatting uncontrolled immigration, but not on granting protection.
Against this backdrop, several Christian organisations have taken up the initiative, including COMECE and the European Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). They call for a change of policy in a Joint Paper: the European Union and its Member States finally need to take their legal and moral responsibilities seriously and open up legal channels for the shelter of people in need in Europe. The authors recognise that there is no panacea that would equally meet the requirements of all the different groups. People from Syria who live in a refugee camp in Lebanon may be helped by an increase in the quota for resettlement. On the other hand, liberalisation of family immigration could benefit those who already have relatives in Europe. While victims of persecution in Eritrea cannot apply for a visa, they do need faster aid.
Taking all this into account, the organisations are campaigning for the development of a “toolbox” which should bring together the various options for legal and safe access to shelter in Europe. This includes both an increase in resettlement quotas (some organisations state an annual figure of 20,000 for the whole of the EU) as well as simplification of family immigration. The idea of the “humanitarian visa” has also been promoted: the paper quotes the positive example of Brazil, whose embassies issue this type of visa in the countries bordering Syria so that those affected can return to Brazil and conduct asylum proceedings there. In the case of people from Syria, Eritrea or Iraq who have to flee in large numbers, consideration should also be given to a temporary suspension of the visa requirements, as these currently prevent them from legally seeking shelter in Europe.
JRS and the other Christian organisations are calling on decision-makers to deal with this quickly. Consultations could provide a specific starting point for a European Commission proposal for a new visa code. Discussions should include not only individual technical matters, but also the legal framework conditions for a comprehensive solution.
While uncontrolled “spontaneous” searches for shelter would still not be stopped, it might be possible to reduce the number of refugees who are forced to trust smugglers, thus putting their lives at risk, due to the lack of legal entry options. So that people like Jean-Claude would no longer have to mourn for relatives who die trying to seek refuge.
Senior Policy Officer, Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, JRS
Translated from the original text in German