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Mainstreaming a minority rights-based approach to refugee and migrant communities in Europe

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Introduction

The combination of the migration crisis, the poor economic climate and the continued threat from terrorism has been blamed for increased hostility towards migration and migrants throughout Europe. Since the beginning of the crisis, with hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants attempting to enter the European Union (EU) by land and sea, an increase in intolerance, xenophobia and hate crime has been reported, even in countries that have traditionally been tolerant towards migration such as Sweden. The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has reported an increase in discrimination and hate crime towards migrants and their descendants, particularly those of Muslim origin. However, the growth of intolerance has also directly impacted settled communities and traditional minorities including Jews and Roma.

Some research suggests that opposition to immigration has remained relatively stable throughout Europe, despite the increasing prominence of the issue in political debate.

However, opinion polls have shown that public attitudes are increasingly polarized along ideological lines. States such as Germany and Sweden, which have traditionally adopted generous protection regimes, have witnessed an increasing public backlash against migration as a result of the scale of the current crisis. Against this background, farright populist parties, which have been marginalized in Europe since the Second World War, are gaining increasing influence within domestic politics. Even in states such as Hungary, where levels of immigration have traditionally been low, the migration crisis has been successfully instrumentalized by politicians to win support.

Research has shown that political narratives and media representations directly shape the public’s perception of the threat posed by migration. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed particular concern at ‘lurid public narratives which appear deliberately aimed at stirring up public fear and panic, by depicting these vulnerable people as criminal invading hordes’. Notably, migrants are often viewed as a terrorist threat, a burden on the state and a threat to societal cohesion and the culture of the majority. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2016, a median of 59 per cent of respondents across ten EU member states expressed concern that the migration crisis would lead to an increased likelihood of terrorism. The highest percentages – over 70 per cent – expressing such concerns were in Hungary and Poland. The perception that migrants do not integrate sufficiently, by learning to speak the language and adopting local customs and cultures, is also a key driver of anti-migrant attitudes.

Rather than opposing anti-migrant rhetoric, mainstream political parties throughout Europe have sought to appease public sentiment and have adopted increasingly oppressive policies in response to the challenges posed by the migration crisis. In some instances, politicians have directly linked the migration crisis to the threat of terrorism. However, by focusing on deterrence and the containment of migrants rather than protection and inclusion, policy responses to the migration crisis have the potential to increase public perceptions of insecurity and fail to challenge the root causes of intolerance.

The migration crisis has brought to the fore the challenges faced by European states confronted with mass influxes of vulnerable individuals who differ from the majority population in terms of ethnicity, religion and/or language. This briefing argues that the approach adopted by the majority of European states in response to these challenges not only violates the human rights of migrants, but that it inhibits successful integration and undermines societal cohesion more broadly.

International human rights bodies have called upon European states to adopt a human rights-led approach to the migration crisis. As noted by François Crépeau, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants: ‘large-scale suffering is experienced at each stage of migration’. The measures adopted by European states in order to deter migration exacerbates the vulnerability of those fleeing conflict, persecution and acute poverty, rejects their presence in society and creates further patterns of insecurity. Yet, it is important to also recognize the relevance of ethnic, linguistic and religious identity to the development of effective migration policies, particularly in relation to mass expulsions, immigration detention and integration. Notably, within Europe, both the EU and the Council of Europe (CoE) have recognized the need to adopt integration policies that develop cohesive societies. However, in practice, migrant integration policies do not address identity as a cause of vulnerability, despite the identification of discrimination, prejudice and xenophobia as a barrier to integration. The increase in intolerance and hate crime associated with the migration crisis also impacts settled migrants and traditional minorities, and endangers societal cohesion.

The first section of this briefing sets out the impact of current policy responses to the migration crisis on migrants themselves and on public opinion, specifically focusing on the implications for integration and societal cohesion. The second section introduces the case for a minority rights-based approach to migrant inclusion, drawing on the expertise of minority rights bodies in order to demonstrate that current policies are likely to be counterproductive and undermine societal cohesion in the long term. Finally, the third section sets out what a minority rights-based approach to inclusion would look like in practical terms, identifying key policy recommendations.