News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Migration / Flight - Europe - Europe2024 Casting a Vote for Refugee Rights

Human rights activist Anna Alboth on the significance of migration in the run-up to the European elections


Migrants hoping to claim asylum in Poland queue up near the Poland–Belarusian border, 25 November 2021. Photo: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

Migration is a topic frequently discussed in the news, on talk shows, and in parliaments across Europe. The discourse surrounding migration is complex, controversial, and often politically charged, with far-right populist parties instrumentalizing and exploiting the issue for their own agenda. Myths such as “more refugees lead to more crime” or “migration strains social welfare systems” exemplify this right-wing discourse.

Anna Alboth is a co-founder of Grupa Granica, a Polish human rights organization dedicated to supporting refugees at the border between Belarus and Poland. She is also the media officer at Minority Rights Group International.

The ascent of right-wing parties in Europe is troubling, as it may result in diminished rights for minorities, including migrants and refugees. The implementation of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and other contentious decisions, such as the EU–Lebanon migration deal and the substantial increase in funding for the European border agency, Frontex, underscore the gravity of the situation. Consequently, the upcoming European elections represent a pivotal moment for the future of the EU and human rights across the continent.

To shed light on these issues, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Sara Rastegar spoke with journalist and human rights activist Anna Alboth about how right-wing parties instrumentalize migration, what role it plays in European politics, and her hopes for the upcoming election.

It’s of the upmost importance that individuals like you actively advocate for human rights, particularly at a time when right-wing parties in Europe continue to grow. Now, as parliamentary seats in Brussels are up for grabs and a new President of the European Commission is to be elected, your insights on migration and the EU take on new significance. How significant are the European elections to you and why?

I’ve been working in the field of human rights for many years, both with grassroots organizations along the European borders and in the international advocacy sphere in Brussels, Strasbourg, and Geneva. I understand the crucial role the European Parliament plays. The European Parliament significantly influences EU policies. Members of the European Parliament shape and approve legislation, and hold the European Commission accountable for its actions. The outcome of European elections can directly impact the EU’s approach to these issues.

MEPs have the power to propose, amend, and adopt legislation, including laws affecting human rights and migration within the EU and in each of the countries I work in. Therefore, the treatment of refugees and migrants at the Polish–Belarusian border, on the Greek islands, in Melilla, Spain, or on the beaches of Calais depends on the decisions made by the European Parliament.

In my opinion, CEAS was a missed opportunity for a smart, forward-looking migration policy that is good for everyone: refugees and the host European society.

Election time is also a time of public debate, awareness-raising, and confronting — and combating — misinformation. European elections provide an opportunity for public discourse and discussion on key issues, such as human rights and migration. Political parties and candidates often campaign on these issues, raising awareness and encouraging public engagement. This can promote a better understanding of these issues and their significance for Europe as a whole.

However, it’s also a moment when topics like migration are manipulated, heating up the atmosphere and exploiting fear — a powerful tool in political campaigning. Is migration a real problem, or is treating migration as a problem the real issue?

We are currently witnessing a growing trend of right-wing populists emphasizing and exploiting the topic of migration, framing it as a threat to Europe and its people. How do you perceive and analyse this phenomenon? Moreover, what potential consequences do you foresee within the EU, an institution that is supposed to fundamentally uphold the values of protecting and preserving human rights, including the rights of refugees and migrants?

The rise of populist right-wing parties and candidates exploiting the migration issue is indeed a concerning trend. These parties often portray migration as a threat to national security, culture, and economic stability, playing on the fears and anxieties of the population. By scapegoating migrants and refugees, they attempt to rally support by offering simple solutions to complex problems. This phenomenon reflects a broader global trend of anti-immigrant sentiment fuelled by economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, and political opportunism.

The consequences within the EU could be significant. First and foremost, we are witnessing an erosion of human rights. The EU, founded on principles of human rights, faces the risk of the erosion of these values as populist parties gain traction. Policies aimed at restricting immigration are already leading to violations of human rights, particularly the rights of refugees and migrants. Sometimes, it seems that when the EU talks about “human rights”, it is actually only referring to the rights of “European humans”.

Another critical issue is the fragmentation of European unity. The rise of populist right-wing parties challenges the unity of the European Union, which we are well aware of. It creates divisions among member states, weakening the EU’s ability to collectively address common challenges, which are more pressing now than ever before. Additionally, the anti-immigrant rhetoric fosters division within societies, promoting intolerance and discrimination. This threatens social cohesion and undermines efforts to build inclusive societies.

Regarding the values of the European Union, as you may be aware, Fabrice Leggeri, the former chief of Frontex — the EU institution involved in in alleged pushbacks and violations of human rights abuses — is running as a candidate in the European elections for Rassemblement National, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen. How would you assess this situation?

It’s sad and concerning, but unfortunately not surprising. This certainly raises serious questions about the values of the European Union. Frontex, as an EU institution, is supposed to uphold European values, including respect for human rights and the rule of law. However, it’s evident that this has not always been the case.

Allegations of Frontex’s involvement in pushbacks and violations of human rights laws are deeply troubling. Furthermore, the fact that its former chief is now running for office for a far-right party adds another layer of concern. It suggests a conflict of interest and raises doubts about Leggeri’s commitment to upholding the EU’s fundamental values.

It is neither our choice nor our merit that we were born in Europe. Likewise, it is neither the choice nor the fault of others that they were not.

This situation underscores the urgent need for transparency, accountability, and a thorough investigation into the alleged violations by Frontex. It also highlights the importance of ensuring that individuals in positions of power within EU institutions are genuinely committed to upholding the values they are tasked with protecting.

What changes and actions are necessary to ensure the rights of refugees, especially in the current context of the rise of right-wing populism, as we approach the elections in June and witness the application of the Common European Asylum System? CEAS has dire consequences for the rights of asylum seekers in Europe, impacting both their treatment within and outside of Europe’s borders.

In my opinion, CEAS was a missed opportunity for a smart, forward-looking migration policy that is good for everyone: refugees and the host European society. The pact does not respond to the major problems and challenges we face: structural racism at the borders, in refugee centres, and within the asylum system, deaths at the borders, lack of legal and safe routes to Europe, and inhumane treatment in closed centres. On the contrary, by keeping people locked up, categorizing them, and paying countries like Libya or Egypt (and potentially, in the future, Belarus), we are pushing people into the hands of dictators and smugglers. This will only lead to the creation of more expensive and dangerous routes. Already, 2023 was the deadliest year on Europe’s borders, and the situation can only worsen.

Experts and practitioners in the field of migration, along with 161 European NGOs including Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, Caritas, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, Sea Watch, and, in Poland, the Border Group, have signed a letter asking members of the European Parliament to abstain from voting. But ultimately, this is politics, and politicians often prioritize satisfying the needs of voters ahead of the EU elections in June. Who cares about human rights if the individual is non-European?

I believe that MEPs should be considering how to welcome people in the smartest, safest, and most cost-effective way possible, using European funds, instead of focusing on how to stop them at the borders and in neighbouring countries that have little to do with so-called European values. The problem lies in treating migration as a problem rather than an inevitable part of human life, much like economics or agriculture. Migration has been, is, and will continue to be part of our reality. Let’s learn to manage it intelligently. We can, because there is abundant research and lessons on how to do it well. However, politics often chooses not to heed this knowledge, instead playing on the fears of voters.

What should be addressed? The following topics: strengthening legal protections, preventing arbitrary detention, ending pushbacks and illegal returns, addressing root causes, promoting and implementing integration, ensuring accountability, and strengthening international cooperation. All of these measures are feasible, especially with the support and experience of practitioners who have been working on the ground for years. However, politicians must first listen to and respect their opinions.

How do you envision the future of the European Union? What are your aspirations for the upcoming elections, as well as your hopes for the Union’s future, particularly in the context of migration?

I am not very optimistic, but that doesn’t mean we should give up our efforts to make Europe a better place for all its inhabitants. It is neither our choice nor our merit that we were born in Europe. Likewise, it is neither the choice nor the fault of others that they were not. We cannot advocate for borderless travel within the EU while simultaneously creating and fortifying borders in Africa, for example. We cannot fight against torture by Europeans while subjecting others to torture.

There is no way to change migration policy in individual EU countries if this issue is not addressed regionally. Migration is inherently a cross-border topic.

I still believe in a Europe that is inclusive, where all member states collaborate to address common challenges, including migration. However, this requires genuine action, not just lip service. I still believe in a Europe that upholds human rights, respects the dignity of all individuals, and manages migration in a fair and compassionate manner.

Specifically regarding migration, my hope is for a comprehensive and coordinated approach that prioritizes humanitarian values while also addressing security concerns. This includes investing in integration programs, supporting countries on the EU’s external borders, and tackling the root causes of migration through diplomacy, development aid, and conflict resolution. Furthermore, I do not believe in discussing migration without the voices of migrants being heard. I wish to see them actively participating alongside local and European politicians, journalists, and educators.

How can we motivate individuals who are hesitant to vote, believing that their vote carries little weight, particularly in the context of human rights?

Motivating individuals to vote, especially those who feel their vote does not matter, is crucial in ensuring that their voices are heard, particularly on hot-button issues such as human rights and migration. What are some ways to encourage voter participation? We need to highlight their impact. We need to emphasize the direct and indirect influence that government policies have on human rights and migration issues: every vote counts towards shaping these policies and determining the direction of the country and the EU as a whole.

Education and awareness are also crucial. We need to provide information (including in minority languages) about how voting works, the importance of participating in the democratic process, and how individual votes contribute to shaping policies. Many people underestimate the power of their vote and may not fully understand the consequences of abstaining. It is essential to foster a sense of community and collective responsibility. I believe in encouraging individuals to discuss their concerns and priorities with family, friends, and neighbours, emphasizing that collective action can lead to meaningful change.

Highlighting success stories also works. I know numerous examples of how voting has made a difference in the past, particularly on issues related to human rights and migration. Showcasing success stories can inspire individuals to believe in the power of their vote, especially if they are deeply connected with their personal values. There is no way to change migration policy in individual EU countries if this issue is not addressed regionally. Migration is inherently a cross-border topic.

Last but not least, voting should be accessible. I hope that member countries will address any practical barriers to voting, such as lack of information, registration difficulties, or accessibility issues. Providing support and resources to overcome these barriers can encourage more people to vote. I hope that we all vote — a Roma woman stuck somewhere in a faraway village, a boy in a wheelchair for whom a few stairs to the voting place are an issue, and an old man who feels that his European life is good and easy and he doesn’t need to care, but perhaps the next migration path will cross his backyard, and he will experience first-hand what it means to be touched by the topics of hunger, life, and death in the twenty-first century.