Oxfam's EU Advocacy office in Brussels

The European Union has got a new anti-refugee deal with war-torn Libya. At their informal summit in Malta, EU leaders welcomed the agreement struck by Italy and promised support for its implementation. EU Council president Donald Tusk and Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat were arguing the EU’s key values are in danger if people continue crossing the sea into Europe, as this would fuel right-wing success at elections. Yes, Mr Tusk – the EU’s key values are in danger. But that’s because you are playing with the lives of migrants.

By Evelien van Roemburg, Policy Lead for Migration & Rights in Crisis for Oxfam Novib

Roughly 10 months ago, the member states of the European Union struck the EU-Turkey deal, which aims at keeping refugees and other migrants out of Europe. As a direct consequence, people are now stuck on Greek islands under horrific conditions, forced to live in tents, exposed to freezing temperatures, and caught in a legal limbo.

Since Thursday, we have got a second anti-refugee deal: at their informal summit in Valetta, EU leaders welcomed an agreement Italy had struck the day before with Libya and promised to support its implementation. The deal has no safeguards for human rights and international law, and it does not include any obligations for Libya to increase its commitment to these principles.

Council president Donald Tusk has long faught for such a deal: together with the Maltese Prime Minister Muscat he even claimed the agreement is needed to “defend EU values”, as a Dutch newspaper reported. They were arguing that if EU governments don’t adopt measures to fend off people attempting to reach Europe via Libya populists will exploit the arrival of migrants in upcoming national elections.

This is wrong. Such a deal with Libya is simply unacceptable. It throws European values over board.

Populists are already winning already because our EU leaders are implementing the very same policies that anti-refugee politicians are proposing. They are winning when Tusk and Muscat are ready to trade away EU core values such as human rights for success at elections. They are winning when our leaders mirror, and thus add credibility to, the narrative of politicians like the Netherland’s Geert Wilders and France’s Marine Le Pen.

Europe’s policy of shutting down borders is simply copying populist recipes – causing terrible harm to people’s lives, and without offering long-lasting solutions. These policies ignore the fact that border closures only give smugglers more business and more wealth: the more difficult it is to travel, the more power smugglers have to extract more money from desperate refugees.

Stopping people in Libya from seeking safety in Europe will only condemn them to the threat of detention, beatings, abuse, slavery and even death.

People who survive the hell called Libya give account of horrific stories: “Traffickers would often leave us without food and water for two or three days and beat us just for fun. I have many scars on my breast,” says a Somali refugee who eventually made it to Italy.

Instead of comprimising European values, Europe needs leaders who will stand up against these practices and policies. Politicians must look beyond elections and be courageous enough to counter populist fear-mongering instead of giving in to it. They can take an example of the everyday heroes all over Europe who have opened their homes and hearts, and are pushing their leaders for policies based on solidarity, humanity and dignity.

We need more politicians like the city mayors across Europe who, last year, published a bold call for compassion with refugees and migrants and offered concrete action to help people in need of support.

We need leaders who will offer fair and genuine solutions in bringing refugees and other migrants to European places of safety, increasing access to safe routes that would work for Europeans and Africans alike.

We need leaders that promote solidarity and compassion and put human dignity at the heart of their policies.

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