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The EU Needs a Migration Human Rights Watchdog

By Nick Micinski

On Monday, European leaders failed in emergency negotiations to agree to a mandatory, EU-wide quota system for refugees. Instead, they imposed temporary border controls in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and the Netherlands and agreed to build new detention camps. These measures are a threat to human rights and to the EU.

The idea of the EU—that solidarity and unity make the continent stronger—only works if Europeans are standing together for something. Historically, that something has been human rights. This refugee crisis is a threat to the European ideal—not only from lack of solidarity on quotas, but also to the disregard of fundamental rights of migrants.

EU leaders should be concerned about the potential for human rights violations within their institutions tasked with managing migration. Large numbers of refugees will be pulled through these institutions—Frontex (the EU’s unified border force), national agencies for refugee status determination, ad-hoc detention facilities, and privatized security companies responsible for deportation—that are poorly funded and largely unsupervised. The current refugee crisis will put unprecedented strain on these institutions over the coming months. The increased demand and authority leaves refugees, who do not have the same basic protections as citizens, uniquely vulnerable to human rights violations.

The EU needs a high level official responsible for reporting on human rights violations throughout the migration process. This new office would be staffed with researchers to inspect detention centers and document abuses, policy analysts to recommend best practice to member states, and an ombudsman to hold those accountable for abuses.

While Peter Sutherland, the U.N. Special Representative for Migration, is tasked with global migration, a high level EU official would be more appropriate to pressure member states into respecting refugee rights within EU institutions.

Migrants are often subjected to inhumane detention and deportation practices such as violence from police or border officials, and misuse of personal data. Human Rights Watch reported on Friday that refugees are kept in Hungarian detention facilities without “access to food, water, or medical care.” The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that Tunisian migrants were held in degrading conditions. In other European countries, like the U.K., there are no limits to the length of detention, leading, in extreme cases, to some migrants being detained for more than four years without trial.

Many were shocked at the violence of Hungarian and Macedonian police officials against refugees. Some reported being kept for hours without food, water, or shelter. As more refugees arrive, police may continue to react violently to impose order. Fair, proportional, and humane treatment by law enforcement across Europe must be guaranteed to citizens and non-citizens alike.

EU leaders are also proposing the possibility for asylum applications to be made overseas. New processing centers may conduct interviews and coordinate resettlement via EU member state consulates around the Middle East. Such processing centers might deter refugees from making dangerous journeys overland or sea. There is a risk, however, that those who bypass these proposed centers may be considered illegal or illegitimate by European authorities. The right to apply for asylum must be protected, even if the EU decides they prefer applications to be made abroad. A new EU watchdog would be responsible for protecting these refugees from illegal deportation.

There is also a danger that countries will misuse the personal data of refugees, violating their privacy and threatening their safety. As refugees cross European borders, they often register in processing centers in Greece, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria. This process includes documenting the asylum seekers’ identities, often through biometric data and fingerprinting. The EU recently implemented Eurodac, a shared database used to prevent asylum seekers from applying for protection in multiple European countries. National police have argued that cross-referencing fingerprints collected from crime scenes through the Eurodac database would increase security. Data pertaining to asylum cases are extremely sensitive because of the nature of refugees’ persecution in their home countries. Sharing this data puts this information in the untrained hands of local police. An EU official could advocate for refugees’ privacy rights across all member states.

An EU migration watchdog will also need to keep a close eye on the Mediterranean. Some European countries are hoping to gain U.N. authorization for the use of force against smuggler networks. The recently formed EU Naval Force, EUNAVFOR Med, could then use military force to stop and board boats in international waters preventing human smuggling. The use force on the high seas poses a major risk for civilians on overcrowded vessels. In addition, EU officials are advocating for boats to be returned to Libya where they would be destroyed. In this situation, the rights of refugees should be prioritized by resettling them within Europe.

The EU needs a new watchdog responsible for human rights in migration. The office would document, shame, and hold accountable member states when they do not meet European standards. Europe used to be the leader in championing human rights. The challenges of this current refugee crisis are a test to see if European values mean more than a commitment to an economic union.

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Nick Mickinski is a is a PhD student at the City University of New York Graduate Center and  research associate at the Ralph Bunch Institute focusing on immigration and refugee policy.

[Photos courtesy of Rebecca Harms]

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