At the end of 2014, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs launched an international appeal for $16.4 billion to finance humanitarian assistance in 2015. António Guterrez, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claims that humanitarian needs have risen to “unprecedented levels”. Syrian refugees alone are said to need some €8 billion in aid this year. War and conflicts in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere are causing human suffering at a scale not seen before. Inevitably and unsurprisingly, this has forced millions of women, men and children to seek settlement abroad. The numbers of refugees and asylum seekers reaching Europe increased significantly during 2014 and are set to keep rising this year. Europe still lacks a human rights-based policy to save the lives of thousands of families crossing the Mediterranean and settle them in EU member states. Last year it was painfully clear that Europe needed urgent, coherent and robust coordination on third-country migration. The year has changed but the challenge is still the same. The violence and misery that has pushed thousands onto over-crowded boats in 2014 is bound to persist in 2015.

However, Europe has not yet woken up to this reality. Last December, the UNHCR got a commitment from Western countries to receive 100,000 Syrian refugees over the next few months. This figure is well short of the 3 million refugees currently living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, countries with far fewer resources than most Western Europe and North America.Germany and Sweden have taken the lead in offering asylum to thousands of refugees. While this is welcome, it is far from enough. Other EU states have to step up their efforts and accept a greater share of the international responsibility to provide assistance and a viable livelihood to people fleeing war and poverty. As far as the UNHCR pledge goes, Germany was the only European country to commit to receiving more than just a few hundred Syrian refugees (20,000). At Volonteurope’s Annual Conference last November, we saw how crucial it is that the EU addresses this issue at once. Political parties have to show courage and engage public opinion in order to generate more positive discourses on migrants and asylum seekers. Member States have to coordinate efforts and share responsibilities proportionately. Migration has for far too long been a weapon in the hands of populist and extremist parties and individuals. Only a human rights approach can change this and offer a permanent solution to migrants and host communities[1].A European policy on third-country migration is only part of the answer. Europe also must take the right actions beyond its borders.

While the EU has developed directives and guidelines on business and human rights, the environment, human rights defenders, and more, it has also supported European companies and investors who continue to commit human rights violations overseas. One example is the construction of wind farms in southern Mexico causing the illegal and forced displacement of dozens of indigenous communities.

This illustrates that European development and commercial policies are at odds with each other. International human rights and humanitarian organisations have been calling for an end to this contradiction for years. The European Year of Development 2015 (EYD 2015) offers an opportunity for improvement.

Europe needs to focus on a holistic approach to international development. Human rights again seem to be the order of the day. For EU external policy to effectively promote development and social justice in its neighbourhood and beyond, a people-centred approach is essential. Overseas trade and investment must be based on a human dimension that is still difficult to see in current business and financial practices.

Development also means less migration pressures on Europe, which should be a strong motivation for EU governments to act accordingly. However, short-sighted, self-interested external policies have done little to tackle global poverty and injustice.

The EYD 2015 offers European and global civil society an opportunity to give voice to these concerns and demand a change in course. Citizens and organisations need to come together to present proposals, monitor policies and act in solidarity. Because of this, Volonteurope is dedicating this year’s Annual Conference to international development and migration. Over the coming months you will hear more about this and our efforts to promote global justice.

Clearly, human rights violations have not only taken place outside the borders of Europe. Within the EU, social dumping, human trafficking and modern slavery is a reality for thousands of people. In addition, we are now well accustomed to hearing about Europe’s levels of youth unemployment, rising inequalities within and between member states, a persistent gender gap, in-work poverty and the erosion of social services.
In parallel to the global humanitarian crisis mentioned above, Europe faces levels of social, political and economic crises not witnessed in its recent history. Europe 2020 and the European Semester have hardly improved the wellbeing and life opportunities of millions of Europeans. Last year we did not see the implementation of necessary policies to reverse this trend. Could 2015 be any different?

These are clearly extraordinary times for Europe and the world. They require nothing less than extraordinary measures. They require a new way of thinking, new priorities and new paradigms.

In recent articles, I talked about the Common Good for Europe. Against a stream of negative rhetoric on Europe, lack of solidarity, public disenchantment and disengagement, and a generalised lack of trust in democratic institutions, it is time we promoted a more hopeful, positive view of Europe and its place in the world.

Promoting the common good is not only about disseminating positive stories of hope. It is also about encouraging the types of behaviours that result in the wellbeing of individuals, the prosperity of communities, the sustainability and fairness of our economies, the preservation of our environment and the happiness of future generations.

This requires people from all sectors of society to work together on common good solutions to current challenges. During 2015 and beyond, Volonteurope’s members and partners will develop the ‘Common Good for Europe’ campaign. This is an ambitious and bold campaign but, as mentioned above, the magnitude of the problems we face require nothing less.

Alongside ‘Common Good for Europe’, we will also be promoting youth participation, rural development, debates on the role of the state, the third sector and communities, and, of course, the value of volunteering and active citizenship. This is going to be a busy year, demanding energy and commitment from all of us.

2015 is likely to be one of the most challenging years in recent history. This does not mean we cannot make a difference. If 2014 has taught us any lesson it is that in times of hardship people can and do come together to raise their voice and promote change. The Hunger Project has concluded that last year was marked by “the daily progress of millions of women and men as they take charge of their lives and destinies at the local level”.
Stay in touch with Volonteurope to find out how we can work together for the Common Good for Europe and for the world.

[1] See also Volonteurope’s report ‘Extending the Family’.