EU's rejection of migrants during the Arab Spring: a "historical mistake" according to Commissioner Malström Bookmark and Share

After the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Commissioner Malström said that "Europe failed to stand up for democracy, freedom and human rights" as it prioritised securing the border over supporting those who had fought for liberty and democracy.

Cecilia Malmström, the EU commissioner for Home Affairs, was invited on 25 June to the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy, to give a keynote speech on "Establishing a European Migration Policy and responding to the Arab Spring: The ways the Migration Policy Centre can support Cecilia Malmström". [1]

A year and half after the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, the Commissioner considered that :"Europe failed to stand up for democracy, freedom and human rights" as it prioritised securing the border over supporting those who had fought for liberty and democracy.

"Europe made a historical mistake. It missed the opportunity to show the EU is ready to defend, to stand up, and to help".

In May 2011, the EU reacted to the "risk" of large numbers of displaced people reaching its shores by rapidly deploying humanitarian support in north Africa and engaging its border security apparatus, including the Frontex operation Hermes in the strait of Sicily, and pursuing the development of the EUROSUR system. [2] As argued by Ben Hayes and Mathias Vermeulen in a recent report: "EUROSUR and "smart borders" represent the EU's cynical response to the Arab Spring". [3]

Commissioner Malström stressed a number times the difficulty of Member States facilitating "legal" migration, particularly in times of economic crisis, and despite the Commission's effort to promote a "more equal approach" between the EU and its neighbours.

Commissioner Malström's position, which seems to shift the responsibility onto Member States, is questionable. The Treaty of Lisbon gives equal responsibility to the Council and the Parliament in migration and asylum policy aspects, the Commission still retains an initiative power in case of "a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries".[4] No proposal was made to directly address the humanitarian situation faced at sea and on EU's territory by those who escaped turmoil and war zones. Instead, the Commission initiated the adoption of a community-based mechanism which would enhance the possibility to reintroduce internal border controls [5], despite the fact this is already possible under the 2006 Schengen Borders Code.

The Commission also had the power to initiate the use of the Temporary Protection Directive in case of "mass influx" from displaced persons "from a specific country of geographical area". Yet, the Commission did not consider this option as:

"At this point we cannot see a mass influx of migrants to Europe even though some of our member states are under severe pressure. The temporary mechanism is one tool that could be used in the future, if necessary, but we have not yet reached that situation".[6]

By the end of 2011, crossing the Mediterranean had never proved so deadly for irregular migrants escaping post-revolutionary chaos, discrimination, deprivation and persecution: between 1,500 and 2,000 people were estimated to have died at sea in 2011.[7]


[1] Launching Event of the Migration Policy Centre (MPC), 25/26 June 2012

Cecilia Malmström attends the opening of the Migration Policy Centre in Florence, 25 June 2012

[2] "JO Hermes - Situational Update", Frontex, 21 February 2012

"The EU's self-interested response to unrest in north Africa: the meaning of treaties and readmission agreements between Italy and north African states"
Yasha Maccanico (2011) Statewatch analysis

[3] Ben Hayes & Mathias Vermeulen (2012)
Borderline: EU Border Surveillance Initiatives, an assessment of the costs and its impact on fundamental rights

[4] Steve Peers and Tony Bunyan (2010) Guide to EU decision-making and justice and home affairs after the Treaty of Lisbon, Statewatch publication

[5] "MEPs suspicious about Schengen rules review", press release, May 2011, European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs

[6] "Debate on migration flows", Cecilia Malström's blog, 6 April 2011

[7] "Lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea: who is responsible?" - PACE draft report, Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, Rapporteur: Ms Tineke STRIK, March 2012

"Migration and revolution", Hein de Haas and Nando Sigona in Forced Migration Review 39 - North Africa and displacement 2011-2012, pp.4-5

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