Defending the rights of migrants – a price worth paying

Published 22 October 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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When following many of the media and public debates in the UK, working on the human rights of migrants at the Council of Europe as a UK citizen seems an unlikely and unfavourable scenario. Yet, when I arrived at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe[1] (PACE) in early September to work with the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons[2], my reception was much to the contrary. Migration issues here were considered as one of the most important areas of work in Europe today and at the core to fulfilling the Council’s purpose. Suddenly, I felt more like I won the jackpot than drawn the short straw.

Strasbourg - Council of EuropeAnother important perspective that is worth bearing in mind is the historical one: the Council of Europe and European Convention on Human Rights were established in the aftermath of two world wars by the London Treaty in 1949 – with Winston Churchill a driving force behind it. From the outset its purpose was to build a Europe of peace, avoid future wars and to prevent the horrors of the recent holocaust from ever re-occurring. From this context the Council’s core values were set: human rights, democracy and the rule of law. A set-up that served Europe well following the breakup of the Soviet Union, allowing for a gradual integration of Eastern and Central European countries into the Council.

With xenophobia and right-wing extremism, often targeted at migrants, on the rise in both Eastern and Western European countries – demonstrated for example by the recent riots in Russia or the stabbing of Pavlos Fyssas by a member of the Neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn – the importance of the Council’s work in this area seems self-evident. Furthermore, the continuous tragedies of migrants’ lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea and a lack of political will for a solution among EU politicians, demonstrate the need for an institution to take a leading role on this issue. Parliamentarians in the Migration Committee have thus agreed a report on this topic, another looking at the arrival of mixed migratory flows on the Italian coast and called for an investigation into the most recent Lampedusa calamity.

The work of the Committee is diverse and far-reaching, representing the interests and concerns of parliamentarians from 47 member states, which means that sending, transit and receiving countries of migrants all sit around the same table. Topics discussed during the last Parliamentary Session (30 September – 4 October) covered  fair returns of irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers, missing persons from conflicts, unaccompanied minors, Syrian refugees, Chinese migration to Europe, alternatives to Europe’s sub-standard Internally Displaced Persons collective centres and statelessness and saw the launch of a guide for Parliamentarians to visit immigration detention centres. This illustrative list of issues addressed by the Parliamentary Assembly in itself demonstrates the political relevance of its work.

Perhaps what differentiates the Council of Europe most from institutions of the EU is that despite it being made up of nation-states, its primary concern is for the individual and his/her human rights. PACE parliamentarians have a dual mandate, as national parliamentarians and members of the Council’s Assembly. In addition to representing national interests, they therefore also take a wider view considering all persons present in Europe. When it comes to migrants, parliamentarians often hold one or several states accountable for human rights violations. The Parliamentary Assembly finds itself in a somewhat paradoxical situation here, on the one hand representing a nation-state system which creates migrants through its borders, while on the other hand upholding the rights of migrants against these very same states.

The work of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons nonetheless shows the extent to which human rights violations in Europe today are experienced by migrants. This demonstrates a continuous need for an organisation that holds member states accountable to their human rights commitments for all, not just their nationals, and for a peaceful Europe. If the commitments made by the post-war leaders in 1949 are to be taken seriously and the escalation of extremist events such as those in Greece and Russia are to be avoided, the continued investment in such institutions seems a price worth paying. Alternatives would make for a bleak Europe.

[1] The Council of Europe is an international human rights organisation with 47 member states based in Strasbourg – not to be confused with the EU. Its main instrument is the European Convention on Human Rights, and its main institutions are the Court of Human Rights (the judiciary), the Parliamentary Assembly (the legislative) and the Committee of Ministers (the executive).

[2] Work on migration is not exclusive to this Committee and also takes place in the Court of Human Rights, the European Social Charter, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (concerning immigration detention) for instance.