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Humanitarian space for migration work must be protected


On International Migrants Day, the Red Cross EU Office calls on the EU and its Member States to honour their humanitarian commitments by supporting civil society actors like National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to provide essential services to migrants, regardless of their location or status.

We are deeply concerned to witness a shrinking humanitarian space for principled action towards migrants within and outside the Union. In 2017, the EU and its Member States sustained their efforts to curtail irregular migration, with increasingly abrasive anti-smuggling policies and practices. Their prioritisation of migration-management objectives in relationships with third countries also risked compromising the neutrality principle, augmenting exposure to potential instrumentalisation. Regrettably, the migration work of humanitarian actors was repeatedly challenged, negatively impacting our ability to access and assist migrants in need.

This year, the implementation of the EU’s anti-smuggling measures had tragic consequences in the Mediterranean. Supported by the EU, the code of conduct imposed on NGO search and rescue missions made the presence of judicial police aboard ships mandatory. As a result, humanitarian actors were cornered into choosing between saving lives and protecting their neutrality – the essence of humanitarian work. “The scope for humanitarian action with migrants has been compromised”, says Denis Haveaux, Director of the Red Cross EU Office. Indeed, many humanitarian actors decided to stop their rescue operations, as they were falsely associated with the smuggling industry through their presence and work. “Sadly, we now see the number of fatalities at sea rising once again”, he underlines.

In its external relations, the EU and Member States continued to employ an ever-widening variety of tools to contribute to their migration-management objectives. Numerous bilateral agreements and development funding mechanisms included reducing migratory pressures towards Europe among their key objectives. While humanitarian workers are increasingly called upon to respond to vulnerabilities along migratory routes, the humanitarian nature of their work is jeopardised by its potential instrumentalisation for political purposes. “If the migration work of humanitarian actors is perceived to contribute to political ends, we could lose the trust of those most in need of our support”, warns Mr Haveaux. “It is critical that EU development funding serves to address issues like poverty and the rule of law, and is not framed as part of a strategy to stop people from moving”, he adds.

Furthermore, a rising number of citizens and humanitarian actors were sanctioned for their solidarity towards migrants in transit within the EU. Often, their only wrong-doing consisted of demonstrating kindness and compassion by offering, food, clothing or shelter. This type of criminalisation is a direct consequence of different national interpretations of the Facilitator’s package. The need to clarify the clause by explicitly excluding humanitarian assistance from the scope of the EU Facilitation Directive is thus increasingly urgent.

All migrants are protected under international law, and their legal status should not be a barrier to the basic protection of their life and dignity. Humanitarian organisations must be able to deliver unconditional support to migrants wherever they are, be it in city centres or at borders.  Currently, the fundamental rights of migrants, many of whom are already in situations of extreme vulnerability, are undermined by the declining support they receive. With last week’s European Council discussions alluding to the establishment of a dedicated financial instrument to stem irregular migration as a priority in the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), this trend seems set to continue. We hope that the EU and its Member States will take decisive action to protect the humanitarian space for work with and for migrants in 2018. “Allowing restrictions to the humanitarian space not only risks endangering the dignity and fundamental rights of migrants, but also threatens social cohesion within the Union”, concludes Mr. Haveaux.

Read our opinion piece on this issue published in European Parliament Magazine.

For media inquiries, please contact Eva Oyón on: or +32 2 235 09 22

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