FRA address to the Danish Institute for Human Rights

For more than a year now, we have heard the phrase ‘refugee crisis’ used by politicians, the media, and the public. And a crisis it undoubtedly is. However, it is not the refugees who are causing the crisis, but the lack of their protection and the solidarity needed to guarantee that protection. Europe will have failed if we fail on this issue. It is so integral to the values on which the EU was founded, and it is currently having such devastating consequences for the people trying to reach Europe’s shores. The rights to life and to dignity enshrined in EU and international law are not negotiable.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,

Many thanks for inviting me to present FRA’s 2016 Fundamental Rights Report here in Copenhagen. Raising awareness of fundamental rights at national level is a vital task, and such an event as this is the perfect opportunity for us to do so.  

I will give you just a few examples today on the key issues covered in the Fundamental Rights Report. So what are the most critical challenges and achievements in fundamental rights over 2015? I will begin with asylum and migration, move on to the rights of the child, then racism and xenophobia, and finish with data protection.

1) With Europe experiencing the greatest movement of people to and across the continent since the Second World War, migration and asylum undoubtedly dominated the policy agenda in 2015, at EU and frequently also at national level. For more than a year now, we have heard the phrase ‘refugee crisis’ used by politicians, the media, and the public. And a crisis it undoubtedly is. However, it is not the refugees who are causing the crisis, but the lack of their protection and the solidarity needed to guarantee that protection. Europe will have failed if we fail on this issue. It is so integral to the values on which the EU was founded, and it is currently having such devastating consequences for the people trying to reach Europe’s shores. The rights to life and to dignity enshrined in EU and international law are not negotiable.

Where are we seeing the greatest risks? Let me point out these three:

  1. The number of cases of people allegedly being pushed back at the EU’s external border increased last year, heightening the risk of refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement is the cornerstone of the international legal regime for the protection of refugees and bans not only a return to the country of origin, but also a transfer to coun­tries where individuals are exposed to the risk of onward removal to the country of origin.
  2. A number of Member States, including Denmark, have announced restrictions to family reunification. FRA is of the opinion that EU Member States should facilitate legal entry to the EU for people in need of international protection, and strong family reunification legislation is very much part of this. At the same time, Article 6 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights lays down the right to family life. To ensure respect for the right to family life and prevent the risk of irregular entry, we therefore need to overcome practical and legal obstacles preventing or significantly delaying family reunification.
  3. In spring 2014 – so well before the situation we are currently seeing – FRA published a paper dedicated to the topic of how irregular migrants are criminalised for entering or staying in the EU. However, criminalisation harms not only the migrants themselves, but also those who support them, such as fisherman and others who rescue migrants in distress at sea, help them move across the EU, or providers of humanitarian or legal assistance. In a number of Member States, including Denmark, efforts to combat smuggling has in some cases led to the criminalisation of people whose sole crime has been to help refugees with free transport across internal EU borders.

2) Moving on to the rights of the child: children made up approximately 30 % of recent deaths in the eastern Mediterranean. Earlier this year, international organisations reported that an average of two children have drowned every day since September 2015. And when the children do survive the journey to Europe, we are seeing two further problems:

  1. Children are at severe risk of enduring violence, sexual abuse and exploitation along the migration route. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children disappeared from reception facilities in countries of first arrival, transit countries and countries of destination last year, making it imperative that we do a better job of integrating national child protection strategies in asylum and migration processes.
  2. Evidence also shows that national child protection systems are not always integrated in asylum and migration processes. More needs to be done to bridge resulting protection gaps and encourage relevant organisations to work together to protect refugee children, for example through the swift appointment of guardians.

Moving away from the area of migration, child poverty remains a concern, with the most recently available Eurostat estimates showing that the proportion of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion is at almost 28%. At just below 15%, Denmark has achieved the lowest risk rate in the EU.

3) I now move on to the rise in racist and xenophobic incidents we have seen in many places around the EU.

  1. 2015 was marked by the aftermath of terrorist attacks attributed to the Islamic State, as well as by the arrival in greater numbers of asylum seekers and migrants from Muslim countries. Available evidence suggests that countries that have seen the highest numbers of arrivals are the most likely to see spikes in racist and xenophobic incidents.
  2. Sometimes we seem to confuse causes here. Many of these attacks were directed against minority groups, but the minorities themselves are not the problem. The principal problem lies in inadequate legal safeguards, as well as poorly enforced laws that leave victims without access to justice. FRA calls on all Member States to ensure that any case of alleged hate crime or hate speech is effectively investigated, prosecuted and tried. Denmark has made positive efforts in this regard. One activity has been training for representatives of the judiciary specifically on sections of the criminal code relating to hate crime. Programmes to empower young Danes with a migrant background and to encourage victims and witnesses to report incidents of discrimination and hate crime are other important measures.

4) Finally, I come to data protection. In the modifications to intelligence and surveillance legislation undertaken by many Member States in 2015, we see the continuous challenge of the relationship between national security and fundamental rights. The purpose of security policies in my understanding of a modern state governed by the rule of law is to create a space for the realisation of fundamental rights. Any limitation of rights must therefore be justified in line with the three core principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As we can see, the EU faces a plethora of challenges when it comes to fundamental rights. So how can we move forward? I see three parallel paths.

Firstly, we need to put fundamental rights, and above all the Charter of Fundamental Rights, at the heart of law making. For fundamental rights to become a reality for everyone living in the EU, they must be mainstreamed throughout the legislative process.

Secondly, we need to reinvigorate fundamental rights training in Europe. We need extensive programs of fundamental rights training across the Member States that are well considered and adequately resourced. And again, the Charter should be at their heart.

Thirdly, we must increase awareness that rights are for everyone, for the majority population as well as for the marginalised. We must educate for human rights and we must put a face on human rights. My neighbour, my daughter, my colleague are rights holders; my father, my friend may be among those whose rights have been violated. They must be supported to claim their rights and the possibility to seek redress when those rights are violated.

And finally, we need to talk to each other. In June this year, the Agency convened its first Fundamental Rights Forum. This three-day event brought together some 700 leading human rights experts from EU Member States, EU Institutions, international organisations, National Human Rights Institutions, equality bodies, civil society, faith communities, and the business sector. I know that some of you were present at the event, and I hope you saw what I saw: The conference stimulated a frank dialogue between many people who rarely engage with each other and whose views often differ. This is the kind of dialogue we need.

The Forum produced a closing statement with more than 100 action points in the areas debated at the event: migration, inclusion and rights in the digital age. You are welcome to take a copy with you today and I would indeed ask you to help in its dissemination, as the statement contains many ideas that could be of use at the national and local level.

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

I would like to emphasise that in talking of the many challenges facing us, we should keep in mind the many achievements. Europe’s citizens enjoy a degree of justice, freedom and security that is unknown in many places. This is an incredible accomplishment that we should never take for granted. Here in Denmark, the work of the Danish Institute for Human Rights as well as a vibrant civil society are vital to not just implement but also foster a culture of rights. I look forward to our continued and fruitful cooperation.

Thank you.