The 7th European Migration Forum: The EU’s double standards and gender-blind migration policies

WIDE+ attended the recent 7th European Migration Forum (EMF) on 20-21 October, organised by the European Commission (EC) and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). This year’s EMF focused on the theme of young migrants and their role in migration integration in Europe. While topics like youth participation in the labour market and education pathways for young migrants were vibrantly discussed, one of the most evident concerns raised by participants during the meeting was the EU’s double standards when it comes to the treatment of refugees from Ukraine versus those from other backgrounds.  Another element missing in the 2-day discussion is a gender lens on youth and migration policies. By Nurhidayah Hassan

Policy is about people; policy is about humanity. This fundamental truth is often obscured in policy-making cycles, policy negotiations, and closed-door decision-making rooms. To demystify a part of this decision-making process, consultative bodies like the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) aim to provide interest groups in Europe with a formal platform to discuss EU issues. The EESC comprises 329 appointed members who come from 3 constituencies – employers, workers, and CSOs. Opinions generated from such discussions are then addressed to the main EU institutions (European Commission, the Council, and the European Parliament).

Currently in its 7th annual session, the EMF is a joint effort between the European Commission (EC) and the EESC, and serves as a dialogue platform between EU institutions and authorities and civil society to discuss migration-related topics. This year’s EMF with the theme, “Youth inclusion: key to successful migrant integration” saw approximately 120 CSOs from the EU, and representatives of local and national authorities, with the attendance of many young people of migrant background, from Syria, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and more. The 2-day meeting included several youth-led discussions, panel presentations, and workshops on topics such as youth as active citizens, access to education and employment, and youth mobility. Young migrants (non-EU citizens) make up around 11% of the young population in the EU and lack access to opportunities in the areas of education, labour market and political/democratic participation. The 7th EMF held several youth-led discussion sessions, where solutions and ideas were proposed, such as increasing funding for self-led young migrant initiatives. During the meeting, two organisations were also elected to the Forum’s Bureau (a committee that supports the preparation of the EMF) – Anila Noor representing New Women Connectors (European level) and Rudi Osman representing Union des étudiants exiles (national level).

Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Ylva Johansson, at the recent European Migration Forum, facing a room full of civil society actors, demanding for the EU to address its policy shortcomings when it comes to protecting the rights of all refugees and migrants.

While the youth represent hope and the future, this sense of optimism started to dissipate during a panel discussion with Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship, Ylva Johansson, and EESC President, Christa Schweng. It must be said that it came across as strikingly odd that Commissioner Johansson began her keynote speech with a story of a young Ukrainian refugee whose entrepreneurial aspirations had been broken by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and how she found renewed hope in the EU. The long-time politician also explained how the activation of the bloc’s Temporary Protection Directive was her initiative to ensure immediate protection for Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Under normal circumstances, this well-intended storytelling effort (straight from a politician’s playbook of persuasion) would have evoked a standing ovation. Instead, the room erupted into a wave of reactions that one can only describe as anger – anger at the very establishment, the Migration and Home Affairs department, which has largely been silent on the grave human rights violations of border control agency Frontex (also the most well-funded EU agency with a budget of 900 million euros in 2022); the department’s, and the EC’s, continued efforts to buttress ‘Fortress Europe’ with the New Pact on Migration and Asylum; and of course, its undeniable double standards when it comes to the “gold standard” treatment of Ukrainians compared to refugees and migrants of other backgrounds. The overall lack of rights-based framework in the treatment of migrants and refugees was not lost on the audience in the room despite Commissioner Johansson’s well-intended keynote speech. Indeed, the room is made up of refugee activists, members of civil society working in the field of migration, and humanitarian workers – all of whom have witnessed and some, suffered, under the inhumanity of EU’s migration policies. Their responses to Commissioner Johansson’s speech were, without a doubt, justified. As one member of the audience commented, “the EU does not have a refugee crisis, it has a management crisis.” Nevertheless, Commissioner Johansson did attempt to level with the audience, by concluding her speech with these words, “We must learn from this experience to help all refugees and migrants. We must learn how we can build even better systems in the future and how we can use what we are doing right now to inspire us to be better prepared for future migration crises and for integration”.

Another critique of the meeting is the lack of discussion around employing a gender lens in EU migration policies. The relevance of gender in the migration policy area cannot be underestimated. Women and men are more or less equally represented among the migrant population, but they have vastly different experiences as migrants. Migrant women experience intersecting discriminations based on their gender identity, migration status, age, class, ethnicity, and other social identities. The lack of a gender perspective in migration policies overlooks the multiple injustices they grapple with in European societies.

For instance, in the labour market, migrant women are over-represented in lower-paid jobs, such as domestic and care work, a sector where human rights violations are rampant. This issue has also been highlighted in EIGE’s recently launched “Gender Equality Index 2022” which highlighted that migrant women were among those most impacted by the pandemic since they are over-represented in precarious employment with little to no protection. During the early months of COVID-19, WIDE+ organised a series of webinars highlighting some of these issues, such as the lack of state provisions for migrants and refugees and gender-based violence, grave challenges that migrant women faced during the pandemic. Because migrant women face significant barriers in the labour market, they experience de-skilling where their skills, knowledge, and qualifications are under-utilised. Other issues which are just as serious include exposure to risks of gender-based violence, being trafficked for sexual exploitation, and the dependence on their partners (usually husbands) for their residence permits.

At the 7th EMF is Nurhidayah Hassan (left), Programme Coordinator of WIDE+ migration and gender working group, and Marcela de la Peña Valdivia (right), long-time WIDE+ member and partner of the working group

Other than migrant women, LGBTQI+ migrants and refugees also experience multiple forms of discrimination leading to problems such as accessing services and integrating into societies. Given the intersecting and multiple challenges faced by migrant and refugee women, it is unacceptable that EU migration and asylum policies continue to employ a gender-blind approach. This approach is at odds with EU’s Gender Equality Strategy – this glaring absence of policy coherence undermines the protection of rights and opportunities for millions of women.

Will Ukraine serve as a model for future migration and asylum policies, as cautiously implied by Commissioner Johansson? Will these policies be gender mainstreamed? It’s hard to say. With the rise of the far-right political leadership in Europe, which will no doubt infiltrate EU’s policymaking with its anti-immigration, anti-women’s rights and nationalistic agendas, it’s impossible not to dwell on despair. The proof is in the pudding as the saying goes, and until we see real policy reforms, we will continue to see anger and not applause in these dialogue spaces.

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