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Refugees sit against a fence in Hungary. Police line the other side of the fence
Image: picture-alliance/M. Moskwa

Shaming EU into leading on refugees

Teri Schultz
May 31, 2018

The chief of Refugees International says Europe is not living up to its promises on human rights. And if closing that gap means creating awkward moments, he's ready.


Fed up with Donald Trump's "capricious assertiveness," European Council President Donald Tusk warned EU leaders this month that "in the new global game, Europe will either be one of the major players, or a pawn. This is the only real alternative."

In a depressing way, the shockingly blunt remarks made by the European Council president about Trump's antipathy toward Europe teed up Eric Schwartz's message just perfectly.

Schwartz, who is the president of the Washington-based Refugees International, was in Brussels to urge the EU to seize Tusk's first option: Brussels shouldn't just be a "major player," but the world's leader in humanitarian policy.  

"The reality of a strong United States committed to a strong and united Europe -- that's not there," Schwartz told DW. "It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of that development. It is extremely challenging, extremely troubling."

Read more - Family reunification hard for Eritrean refugees in Germany

Nativist rhetoric a problem on both sides of Atlantic

At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, stood alone in her open-door policy. Merkel - whom Schwartz described as  the "voice of reason, of responsibility, of acceptance, of the principles of inclusion" – was met with great opposition from most EU leaders.

Refugees International notes that the developments in the years since, including the lack of a common asylum policy and the failure of the agree migration resettlement scheme, have exacerbated the problem. It is especially critical of what it describes as the unacceptable prioritization of blocking arrivals over ensuring human rights, especially EU efforts to prevent potential migrants and refugees from leaving Turkey and Libya.

As troubling, said Schwartz, is that "the nativist rhetoric among leaders in the United States has been matched by nativist rhetoric here" in Europe. 

No shame in shaming

Rather than succumbing to a discouraging situation, Refugees International has chosen to use a creative approach to help the world's most vulnerable, even if it means making European policymaker uncomfortable.

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz
Refugees International President Eric Schwartz Image: DW/T. Schultz

"In Europe at least there is a declared commitment, an articulated commitment to human rights principles," he explained. "And our job is to point out the dramatic discrepancy between the principles that European leaders espouse and the actions that they're taking and that gives us the capacity to shame governments and move them in the right direction."

How do those conversations play out? Schwartz described them.

"We sit down with European leaders and say, 'This is what you say you care about, but look what's happening: You say you care about human rights in Libya but there are thousands of people being detained under wretched conditions. All right. You say you care about human rights in Turkey, but you've got an agreement where people are being returned to Turkey without the kind of guarantees of protection that they need.'"

The relative quiet they've bought by blocking the most massive flows of people is not solving their problems, he tells them. According to Schwartz, EU interlocutors aren't exactly leaping into action – but at least they're listening.

Read more - Refugee crisis: 'Without human rights, we are lost'

EC's Kohler: migration-related spending increases are insufficient

EU leaders ignore these issues at their peril, said Michael Kohler, who works with the European Commission's Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations.

As Director for the Southern Neighborhood, Kohler tracks developments in the Mediterranean countries where both refugees and economic migrants disembark for Europe.

Like Schwartz, Kohler agrees that there should be more ambition in the EU, along with more funding for migration-related action. The EC's proposal for such spending in the next multiannual budget draft is much higher than the previous seven-year plan, but "even the steep increase is much too low."

Kohler takes the long view on his concerns about the crisis of leadership and of empathy. "The point is you need to stabilize a rather big part of the world," he told DW. "So if you take in refugees, you don't stop the instability which will produce more refugees. If you decide not to take in refugees, there is still instability and it will produce even bigger pressure on you and your society and your borders."

While the EU and member states are collectively by far the top humanitarian donors in the world, he hopes to see more unity on helping stabilization in the rest of the world that will ultimately result in fewer people seeking to leave their home countries. That's in Europe's interest, he emphasized, no matter who's sitting in the White House.

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