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Civil society support for migrants: decriminalising solidarity and providing humanitarian admission

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A public hearing was held in Brussels this week on "Civil society support for refugees and migrants: decriminalising solidarity and providing humanitarian admission”, hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee. Sabrina Le Noach, Migration Officer at the Red Cross EU Office, contributed the Red Cross’ views alongside representatives from the European Commission and various civil society organisations.

The event focused on the topical matter of how European civil society responds to the insecure situation of migrants trying to reach Europe.

This subject is highly relevant to the work of National Red Cross Societies in the EU, whose key priorities in the current migration context are supporting social inclusion, providing vital humanitarian aid, and aiming to ensure the protection of migrants’ fundamental rights.

First, panellists discussed some of the hindrances that prevent civil society assisting migrants in an irregular situation. As is explained in our publication, “Protecting the dignity and rights of migrants in an irregular situation”, due to the current lack of accessible legal channels, irregular migration is the only way to reach the EU for many people. Anti-smuggling policies have resulted in the criminalisation of migrants in an irregular situation, and in some countries, the people and civil society organisations (CSOs) engaging with them. This isolates migrants, increasing their vulnerabilities.

During the meeting, an EU citizen shared his testimony of being punished for offering help to migrants in an irregular situation – drawing attention to the lack of public knowledge on the extent to which citizens can legally provide assistance, which was cited as a factor limiting engagement with migrants.

The second panel addressed current practice and initiatives to promote access to the EU on humanitarian grounds, or via resettlement. This is a key area of work for European Red Cross Societies, who have developed recommendations to promote increased use of resettlement across the EU, as well as suggestions as to how the Union Resettlement Framework can serve to strengthen Europe's humanitarian commitment to achieving protection and durable solutions for vulnerable refugees.

Ms Le Noach emphasised the dramatic humanitarian consequences of the lack of legal ways to reach the EU. “Despite joint and sustained advocacy by CSOs across Europe, EU Member States are not sufficiently implementing safe legal routes to the EU,” she stressed, explaining that the numbers of people resettled through humanitarian admission schemes fall far short of meeting humanitarian needs.

A key part of CSOs’ role in supporting safe legal routes is in making family reunification a reality. Not only does reuniting relatives help provide an avenue to reach the EU safely and legally, it also upholds the fundamental right to family life. Unfortunately, rules and procedures across Europe are so complex and inadequate that “practitioners have identified several obstacles when it comes to implementation of the right to family reunification,” reported Ms Le Noach. As highlighted in the recent report of the European Migration Forum, CSOs are worried about restrictive changes in legislation on family reunification, which force migrants to rely increasingly on CSOs whilst they are being limited by budget cuts.

Ms Le Noach also highlighted the potential for the EU and its Member States to further explore making use of another legal migration tool: humanitarian visas. She recounted how European Red Cross Societies note their life-saving potential, citing a Swiss Red Cross programme that helps ensure humanitarian visas are made available to Syrian nationals. “Despite the large numbers of people in need of protection, humanitarian visas are currently underused,” pointed out Ms Le Noach. Besides offering legal and financial support to facilitate the issuance of humanitarian visas, CSOs are engaging in advocacy for Member States to make use of them and increase legal access to international protection.

Together, the panellists’ contributions underlined the crucial role played by civil society in facilitating humanitarian admission. With the EU prioritising the fight against the smuggling of migrants, the experiences of CSOs indicate that opening legal avenues to the EU such as resettlement, family reunification and humanitarian visas, is the most safe and sustainable way forward.

For media inquiries, please contact Eva Oyon on: eva.oyon@redcross.eu or +32 2 235 09 22