Europe must take action on immigration before it is too late. That is the message that Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International has been discussing with EU officials. He spoke to euronews reporter Efi Koutsokosta.
euronews: “Mr Shetty welcome to Euronews. Let’s go to the Middle East. Amnesty International said last week, and I quote, that “the world’s response to the Syria crisis so far has been woefully inadequate”. Why would you say that?
Salil Shetty: “Because we have 2.3 million refugees now, we have children who are dying of hunger, we have over nine million displaced in all six million internally displaced, 2.5 million or so refugees and we have known this problem and again Amnesty International repeatedly documented the crisis in Syria. If we had taken action earlier, we wouldn’t have been to that situation today. Even as we speak, we have and this is very relevant for our discussion in Europe, of the 2.5 million or so refugees, 97 percent of them have been resettled just in the neighbouring countries and these are relatively poor countries like Lebanon, Jordan. Europe at the end of all this rhetoric around Syria I think all it’s been able to do is to pledge to take about 14,000 or so of people and of that, 11.000 have been taken by Germany alone as pledges. So of 27 EU member countries, 28 EU member countries in all, 17 of them are taking zero.
euronews: “That’s why you said that the European leaders should be ashamed?”
Salil Shetty: “Absolutely, absolutely. I think it’s a matter of great shame. And you know, the net result if you don’t take systematic actions, as the UN special rapporteur for example has said that Europe can easily take 250,000 refugees a year for the next five years. Now, if you don’t take action today the fact that Syrian refugees are going to keep coming in Europe. That’s going to happen because Nicosia, which is the furthest point in Europe, is not that far from Damascus – a couple of hundred miles. So, they will find their way here.”
euronews: “We are coming to the debate opened within the EU after the Lampedusa tragedy. Southern countries are complaining of having to shoulder an unfair burden as landing points for migrants seeking access to the EU. On the other hand, the Germans, Dutch, Danish and others say that “We are taking most of the asylum seekers coming to the EU in our countries”. So, what would you say, what should be done?”
Salil Shetty: “From an external global perspective, where I come from, in a sense the internal issues within Europe are important but if you look at it from a global perspective we look at Europe as a world leader on human rights, historically. But what we have seen in the recent past is actually quite the reverse. So, if you take the issue of how the migrants, asylum seekers are pushed back into the sea, thousands of people, as you know, have died at the last few years coming to the Mediterranean, let alone by the land route. They are fleeing from prosecution and torture and coming to Europe. They get pushed back often losing their lives, children and women and if they do arrive in these countries including Greece, Italy and places like that, they are often put into detention centres and treated in a really bad way. The idea that Europe is taking its fair share, unfortunately is not true.”
euronews: “Do you think that Lampedusa was a wake up call for the EU?”
Salil Shetty: “We thought so. That is the unfortunate fact that this is a few months ago that happened and it really picked the conscience of European people and European leaders but if you look at what has actually happened in practice instead, apart from having meetings and rhetorical statements, not much has changed in practice. That’s one reason that I’m here.”
euronews: “The EU after Lampedusa tragedy, has launched a European Surveillance border control, a system which has been strongly criticised by the Human Rights Organizations. Don’t you think that a better border surveillance could eventually help rescue lives from the sea?”
Salil Shetty: “Absolutely, I think if there are better search and rescue systems in place, if there are better ways of disembarking people of saving their lives and once they come ashore a better shared responsibility then all of this will help. But it’s not a question of surveillance, it’s a question of how you protect the lives of people. The life of a person in Syria or the Middle East is of equal value as a life of a European. We can’t deny that. Nobody is expecting Europe to open its borders indiscriminately. It can be done in a systematic way. There are international procedures of how asylum seekers have to be dealt with case by case. But the reality is that many of the European countries simply put them in detention centres. “
euronews: “Let’s focus on the situation the Europe is in. The anti-immigrant sentiments are rising across Europe and along with that there are many extreme right parties which are exploiting and really investing on these sentiments. This factor complicates the situation, doesn’t it?”
Salil Shetty: “It does but it’s also used as an excuse. You know the fact that there is economic stress, or there is austerity challenges and the growth of right wing parties but we can’t forget the fact the European Union was founded on core values of human rights, of fundamental freedoms, of respecting every individual human being, that’s what makes Europe unique. So, we have to go back to our founding values. The EU institutions are here to guard the law which Europe has. So, if you take for example the race equality directive, that allows the EU institutions to take action against member states when they discriminate against Roma, discriminate against migrants.”
euronews: “Usually when we speak about human rights violations, humanitarian crises, people have mainly in mind Africa, the Middle East or Asia. But during the last years there is another social crisis especially in countries such as Greece under austerity programmes. Do you think that there is a degradation of human rights in favour of a fiscal consolidation?”
Salil Shetty: “Unfortunately, there have been incidents of this nature and really again the EU should intervene in the situation, it’s well within their competence. Austerity cannot be at the cost of human rights and this is a real genuine problem.”
euronews: “Do you have any specific suggestions to do about that in Europe?”
Salil Shetty: “What we normally recommend is that before austerity measures are put in place an essential prerequisite for governments is to look the human rights impact that these are going to have particularly on vulnerable populations. So, for example if you are going to do something in relation to public housing if people are going to be forcibly evicted from public housing because of an austerity measure, I think that it’s absolutely essential that the European institutions and the member states take cognisance of this beforehand and not after the event.”
euronews: “Mr Shetty what do you think is your impact as Amnesty International on decision-making? Are the political leaders take your suggestions into consideration?”
Salil Shetty: “Do they listen? Are they influenced by opinions? I believe they are but the important thing for us is that human rights is a universal set of rights and we don’t talk based on whether somebody is listening or not. It’s very important for us to shine the light, to speak truth to power and I think over time truth and justice will prevail.”
euronews:“Are you optimistic for the future?”
Salil Shetty: “Always optimistic. That’s the nature of my work.”