Who are the migrants and how do they arrive in Europe?
I wanted to write at least one post that gives outsiders an overview of the current migration trends, which are affecting Europe. Many of us are moved by the pictures of the migrants risking their lives off Italy’s coast, arriving in small dingy boats across the Aegean Sea and crossing the Morocco border into Spain. As Europe is building more and more fences, and battling over a response, I wanted to take a moment to outline, who is arriving, and what arduous routes are these migrants taking. Clarity on this matter is important because it gives context to the European policies and responses, which I hope to explore in this blog.
The majority of Europe’s migrants are refugees
The vast majority of migrants arriving in Europe are fleeing war torn areas, and can thus be described as forcible displaced people or refugees. Over 80% of the migrants arriving in Europe are fleeing countries, which are plagued by conflict, general violence and insecurity, or repressive regimes, which violate the human rights of its citizens. Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis make up the largest groups. The next biggest group arriving on Europe's shores are migrants fleeing war-affected Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, and Nigeria and repressive Eritrea
The arrival of these people forced from their home in Europe is part of sad global trends: In fact, to give some perspective, one in every 122 people in the world is currently either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.
I highlight these statistics, because often the term migrant refers to various situation: economic migration, referring to migrants in search for better job prospects; mixed migration, referring to those, who may be fleeing a combination of violence and nonviable livelihoods, and finally, forced displacement, referring to those fleeing violence. All of the above are arriving in Europe, and the vast majority arriving are indeed refugees. In a future post, I will explore how this distinction matters in terms of legal status.
Europe is the closest wealthy, stable and accessible region to the aforementioned conflicts. Currently, around 75 million international migrants are thought to live in Europe, and the movement towards the continent is unlikely to abate any time soon: in addition to the protracted conflicts, growing global inequalities and unpredictable weather pattern are undermining livelihoods in many areas.
2015 was a momentous year in this movement of people towards Europe: Frontex, Europe’s border agency, recorded a record 1.8 million unauthorized border crossings and 1 million asylum seekers. This was six-fold increase from the prior year. Sadly, 2015 was also the deadliest year for migrants: according to the International Organization for Migration, 3,700 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe last year alone.
Africa and the Middle East, not Europe host the majority of migrants
As I will dive into the European crisis, I want to underline that Africa and the Middle East still host most of the displaced people: in fact, Europe hosts only about 6% of the world’s forcibly displaced people. In contrast, much more resource-constraint Africa and the Middle East host 29% and 39% of people displaced by horrific events. With much of the news focusing on migrants off Europe’s shore, this fact is often forgotten.
To exemplify this further, I want to highlight the small country of Lebanon: according to 2015 UNHCR figures, Lebanon hosts the most refugees in the world per capital at 232, which accounts for more than a fifth of its population. Next up are Jordan, Nauru, Chad, Djibouti, South Sudan and only then Turkey, bordering Europe. It is worth noting that most of these countries do not have the resources that would match the current refugee crisis.
The majority of Europe’s migrants arrive through three sea routes
To arrive in Europe, nearly 60 percent of migrants take three sea routes, with the rest opting for various land routes through the Balkans. Just so far this year, over two hundred thousand desperate migrants have risked their lives to reach Europe by sea.
The three sea routes are the Central Mediterranean route, which runs from North Africa to Italy or Malta; the Eastern Mediterranean route, which goes through Turkey to Eastern Greece, southern Bulgaria, or Cyprus; and to a lesser degree the Western Mediterranean route to Spain.
The Migration Policy Institute wrote a detailed blog post, on the trends along each route, and determined that a “complex web of often interconnected factors including border control and immigration policies; changes in the origins of the flows; weather patterns; evolving conditions in origin, transit, and destination countries; and adaptations to any or all of the above by smuggling networks” affects the popularity of each route.
The Italy Route – the most dangerous route
The central Mediterranean route has the longest stretch of sea, which means it is the most dangerous way for migrants to arrive in Europe: the images of the migrants at risk of, and too often, drowning at sea off the coast of Italy showcase the dangers inherent to this route.
The Central route was the most popular in 2013 and 2014- in 2014, more than 80 percent of the asylum seekers and migrants detected in Europe chose this route. Most of the migrants on this route come from sub-Saharan Africa, with a growing number of Syrians and North Africans joining them. Libya is the prime departure country, though Egypt and Tunisia are also departure ports.
Around 3,000 migrants died in these seas both in 2013 and 2014. Due to complex interplay of factors, the Eastern Mediterranean route overtook the central one in mid-2015- perhaps a minor relief in the sense that the Eastern route is slightly safer. Unfortunately, likely inspired by the EU- Turkey agreement, as of spring 2016, the use of the dangerous Central route spiked again.
Once in Italy, many migrants try to make their way into Europe- passing through the Alpine Brenner pass at the Italy-Austria border. This prompted the Austrian government’s plans to build a fence at the Austria – Italy border. Those plans sparked violent protests in Italy, and Austria and Italy are due to meet for diplomatic talks on the fate of the border.
The Greek Route
The Eastern route requires migrants to travel through Turkey to eastern Greece, southern Bulgaria, or Cyprus. This way (except for the Bulgaria route) entails a short sea crossing through the Aegean Sea. In 2015, Frontex detected more than 885,000 crossings along this route, propelling it to most traveled route by migrants. In the first half of 2015, more than 85 percent of migrants on this route came from war-torn countries, prime among them Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. Additionally, an increasing number from sub-Saharan Africa are also arriving via this route.
Once in Greece, most of the migrants continue their journeys north, leaving Greece through its border with Macedonia, and then on towards the Balkans and Hungary. It is those images of masses of Syrian refugees crossing the various borders into Europe, which the Brexit campaign utilized in fomenting xenophobia.
The Eastern Mediterranean has been an important route for migrants for a significant time. In 2008-2009, Frontex notes, more than 40 000 people used this route to gain access to Europe, accounting for some 40% of all migrants arriving in the European Union. Turkey now sports an important people-smuggling industry in Turkey.
The Spanish Route
This route is proportionally less popular, but has seen migrants’ arrival for a decade now. Originally a route for economic migrants, recently, refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa’s wars are choosing this route: people fleeing northwards from conflicts in Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic. In 2015, Syrians accounted for the biggest share of detections on this route.
In order to get to Spain, Africans travel towards Morocco or Algeria via two land routes. One follows the West African coastline, preferred by migrants closer to Senegal and Mauritania; the shorter one crosses the Sahara, often traveled by nationals of countries further afield. Crossing the Sahara is dangerous: just last month, 34 migrants died trying to cross the Niger dessert, 20 of them children.
Once the migrants arrive in Europe, they encounter patchwork of laws governing immigration and rescue, which I hope to explore in the next post.
For now, in 2016, the sad trends regarding the dangers of traveling to Europe continue: to date this year, 231,153 refugees arrived in Europe via the sea route, and nearly 3000 are dead or missing. 74% of those arriving in 2016 were from the world’s top ten refugee producing countries.
As I keep on writing about the migrants and the European policy responses, I think grappling with the refugee reality is key: the majority of people affected by these policies are fleeing war and violence, risk their lives in the journey, and arrive exhausted and traumatized. The conflicts, which they are fleeing, are protracted, and political resolutions remains uncertain. As I dive into the journey of exploring European responses, at the policy and at the local level, I hope to keep this context central.