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Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many thanks first of all to the Dutch Presidency for organising this important event. I think we’re all agreed that the topic of migration is here to stay at the top of the European agenda.

Before I go into more detail about the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency in this area, I would like to share with you some impressions from my recent trip to the EU’s newly created hotspots in Greece and Italy.

You may be surprised to hear this from the Director of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, but I do not think the hotspots are an inherent fundamental rights risk. On the contrary, I think they could very much be part of the solution as long as Member States work closely with each other, with relevant countries outside the EU such as Turkey, and with the support offered by organisations such as Frontex, EASO and FRA. With this kind of constructive cooperation, we can develop an efficient, fundamental rights-compliant response to the migration challenges we’re seeing on the Greek and Italian islands.

However, we are not there yet. At present there are major gaps that must be addressed if we are to ensure that all those arriving are adequately protected.

On the island of Lesbos, they are now seeing about 1,000 migrants arriving a day. Does this sound a lot to you? Well there they are calling this the quiet season, a time when policies can be developed and put in place before numbers are expected to start rising again in spring. This leaves us with only a narrow window of opportunity in which changes can be made.

Most of the hotspots are still work in progress, and currently look more like detention centres than anything else. Identifying and referring vulnerable people hinges on a few committed individuals – a single doctor, a volunteer, a UNHCR protection officer, or a well-trained Frontex border guard.

Child protection is a major issue. One out of four new arrivals in Europe last year was a child, and the increasing number of unaccompanied minors does not only put a strain on national child protection capacities, but also increases the risk of children becoming victims of exploitation. A group of unaccompanied children from Somalia I met had been kept in detention for several weeks after refusing to be fingerprinted and there were delays in finding legal guardians.

As I said, these are just first impressions. Conditions at the hotspots – and indeed in many other places around the EU – are difficult. And we are already working on an in-depth analysis that will allow FRA to help make a thorough assessment of what is needed, and what is feasible, to improve the fundamental rights situation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

FRA’s visit to the hotspots is of course only one element of the Agency’s multifaceted work in the area of migration. It would take a very long time to list all our research and publications, so I will mention just a few:

  • a paper on increasing legal entry channels for people in need of international protection
  • a handbook on European law relating to asylum, borders and immigration and produced in cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights, which has proved immensely popular and is now available in 22 EU languages as well as Turkish and Russian
  • research into the severe labour exploitation of workers moving within or into the EU that included more than 600 interviews with experts in the field
  • just last week, FRA published its first monthly overview of the fundamental rights situation of those arriving in the EU
  • a workshop FRA held in December dedicated to communicating respect for the rights and obligations contained in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which found that awareness raising is only possible through clear and honest dialogue rather than top-down communication. My colleague Friso Roscam-Abbing will go into more detail during the discussion on the impact of migration on social cohesion and inclusion that he’s chairing later on today.

Now, discussions currently often focus on Schengen and whether and which borders will reinstate border checks. But we have to understand that what we are witnessing today is more than a challenge to Schengen. The European Union is unique in that its human rights commitments as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights include the right to asylum, which is not contained in any other international human rights convention. This normative framework is critical and at the same time gives us a particular responsibility.

The findings of a FRA project presently being finalised on the integration and participation of migrants show that the vast majority of EU countries have integration policies reflecting past concerns rather than present needs or future challenges.

Take education. In about half of Member States we found evidence of school segregation of pupils with an immigrant background, mostly in Western Europe. But for children and young people to really have equal chances on the job market, it’s vital they are given the necessary support from an early age. The exclusion of children from quality education and the resulting lack of equal opportunities results in marginalisation that can affect migrants generation after generation. According to OECD figures, the employment gap between immigrants and natives widened in the EU in the wake of the economic crisis, while remaining stable in other OECD countries. Unemployment among young people born in the EU to immigrant parents is almost 50% higher than among youth with native-born parents. So we have some way to go in tailoring integration policies in the EU to the present situation.

Now, in order to protect the rights of migrants and of ethnic and religious minorities living in the EU, we need to ensure the protection of the majority population. The sense that human rights are somehow “only for minorities” has driven up support for populists in many places around the EU, and must be countered by hard facts and revealed for what it is – a myth.

There is no hierarchy of rights holders: respect must be for everyone, and from everyone. And it should not be forgotten that in the majority of cases, the instigators and perpetrators of intolerance and discrimination are not from minorities, but belong squarely to the majority population. All this must be communicated more, and better, by governments, local authorities, the police, and civil society, as well as through dialogue between and within specific communities.

As many EU economies still find themselves struggling in the aftermath of the economic crisis and demographic shifts leave us with an ever-aging population, we cannot afford NOT to promote equal treatment and social inclusion. Persisting discrimination and marginalisation will not only result in losing the skill and talent that Europe needs, but could also be a grave danger to social cohesion.

These are big challenges indeed. And it would be too much to expect that any one government, organisation, or even country can deal with them alone. We need each other’s support and experience. This is a pan-European challenge that the Council of Europe and the European Union need to address together, hand-in-hand.

Our institutions play a key role in stressing that there can be no migration policy without human rights. And they have a key role to play in underlining the fact that migration does not end together with the closing of an asylum procedure, but on the contrary begins there.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We must never forget that whatever action we take on migration or any other issue, human rights must be at the forefront. Our commitment to human rights is sacred, and it is non-negotiable.

Thank you.