Europe is experiencing another migration wave. This may seem like same old news, but there are two significant differences. For one, the routes and with it, the migrants’ vulnerabilities changed. Secondly, the kind of migrant arriving differs. Europe is now witnessing an increasingly mixed migration stream. Europe’s tool-set is even less well equipped to respond to this smaller, but tougher migration.
Who are the migrants arriving?
Within the last three years, Europe witnessed the highest immigration rate since the Balkan wars: wars in the Middle East and Africa caused a historic refugee wave. Over eighty percent of migrants arriving on Europe’s shore up until last year hailed from war torn countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, Libya and Nigeria, as well as repressive Eritrea. Now, more and more economic migrants are taking the risky journey. Experts refer to this movement as mixed migration, meaning that people with different backgrounds and motivations travel together along the same routes. Top countries of origin are Nigeria, Guinea, Cote-d’Ivoire, Bangladesh, and only then Syria. Nigeria experiencing two conflicts in the North: the continuous fight with Boko Haram, and violent skirmishes between pastoralists and farmers. Yet, with much of the country stable, an equally important push factor is the severe and poorly managed economic recession Nigeria suffered last year.
How the induced shift in routes changed the migration stream
The closure of the Balkan route is an important factor in this change. In my primer last year, I outlined the three routes, through which refugees arrived: The Eastern Route via Turkey and Greece; the Central Route from Libya to Italy, and finally the Western Route via Morocco and Algeria towards Spain. These are still the main routes to Europe; however, their respective popularity shifted away from the Western route and towards the more dangerous Central Route.
During the height of the refugee influx, most migrants arrived via the Eastern route. In response, Europe adopted a two-pronged approach: increased border control along the Balkan states and the Aegean Sea, and off-shore control through the bilateral EU- Turkey deal. In exchange for economic assistance, Turkey takes back migrants, which left its shores, and polices its coast aggressively. Hungary erected a border fence with electric shock capacity along its border with Serbia. Consequentially, about 7000 refugees are stuck in Serbia in Calais-like conditions (For more info, read my account on the refugee situation along the border). According to the International Organization for Migration, arrivals to Europe have generally decreased, with Eastern route seeing the largest effect: while in spring of 2016, Greece registered almost 200,000 arrivals; this year, it registered short of 5,000.
Europe thus succeeded in curtailing refugee arrivals via the Eastern route. The trouble is that this route is the most frequented by genuine refugees: According to the newest UNHCR report, Syrian, Afghan and Iraqis continue to travel via the Eastern route. The difference is that the route has become more difficult, more expensive and brutal. Refugees experience victimization at the hands of human smugglers and border guards, and linger months in transit countries. The closure of the Western Route thus affects the most vulnerable migrants the most.
The closure of the Eastern Route thus affects the most vulnerable migrants the most: the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
By contrast, migration along the Central and to a lesser degree Western routes has increased: This spring, Italy received roughly 100,000 more migrants than in the spring of 2016. Spain received a 1000 more. Deaths along the Spanish route increased over hundred-fold, and remained high along the Central Route. This year alone, 2150 people drowned trying to reach Europe. Last year, over 4500 people perished at sea. Drowning has been no deterrent to migration.
The shift in routes is significant for two reasons: for one, there is no easy way to close the route. Secondly, the route is much more dangerous.
The sea crossing is longer and much more unpredictable. A UK House of Lords report determined that EU efforts to patrol the sea via Operation Sofia did not stem migration, but instead increased the death toll of migrants. The human smuggling networks respond to increased sea patrols with more risky maneuvers. As European border guards destroyed wooden boats and increased drone patrols, smugglers turned to the use of quickly inflating rubber dinghies. These vessels are not stable enough for long sea crossings. Smugglers fill the dinghies at more than double of their capacity, and sometimes fail to provide fuel or even a working engine. The result is a staggering death toll at sea.
Libya – from a destination to a transit country.
Libya’s instability is key for understanding the new migration wave. Once a country, in which many Africans found work, post-Gaddafi Libya is rife with danger, especially for people of color. This is problematic for two reasons: for one, economic migrants, who planned to work in Libya, are now fleeing to safer grounds, despite knowing the dangers of the journey. Migrants travelling through Libya face danger from both armed militia, and abusive government forces. According to UNHCR, armed groups dominate the smuggling business. Journalists report frequent kidnappings, extortions and abuse, and even the sale of migrants as slaves.
Secondly, with a weak and beleaguered government, Libya is no partner for a Turkey-style bilateral agreement. Since Gaddafi’s downfall, armed factions compete for power. Nevertheless, Italy signed a migrant deal and Europe has invested in Libya’s coast guard, border control in the south and detainment capacity for blocked and readmitted migrants, with little to show for it. Despite tens of millions of dollars in training, the Libyan coast guard have tortured, threatened and sexually abused rescued migrants, and even shot at and sank migrant ships. Both Amnesty and Doctors without Borders have reported that factions of the Libyan coast guard have colluded with smugglers. Detention centers for migrants are abysmal. Nevertheless, Europe continues to pour money into the Libyan coast guard.
In short, Europe cannot easily close the Central route. Increased policing has only increased the death toll. Libya is no reliable partner in managing migration streams. The instability in Libya will likely continue to be an important push factor for migrants.
Why is this so important?
These changes matter, because Europe’s migration legal structure is ill equipped to address the current migration crisis. Currently, Europe lacks the tools to address the bottle-neck situation in Italy: this year alone, more than 84,000 migrants arrived in Italy. Italy, like Greece, is now harboring a disproportionate size of the incoming migrant population. Like Greece, Italy also suffers from a debt-ridden and sluggish economy. Italian political parties are grappling with the consequences, with populists and far right parties seizing on the migration question.
Additionally, Europe’s meager burden sharing policies do not apply to economic migrants. For refugees, the EU has an embattled relocation scheme, but granted asylum rates for the current top countries of origin are low. France and Germany joined response focused on the same old and questionable solutions: increased investment in Libya’s security apparatus. Italy is calling for a more ambitious approach: the repatriation of economic migrants along with refugees alongside of investment in Libya’s and Niger’s border regimes.
Political will to address the current situation is low. Resistance to relocation of economic migrants will be high. Currently, Europe has a commitment to combat irregular migration, and no legal avenues for integration. The proposed relocation of refugees spawned divisions between within the European Union. Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary each refuse to take in any asylum seekers. The European Union is considering legal action against these countries.
Europe's current rate of relocation of refugees. Most countries have not fulfilled their quota. Economic migrants do not even qualify for relocation.
Solutions in sight?
Missing from current political debates is a reckoning with the fact that this migration wave has no quick fixes, neither outside nor within Europe. The status quo also remains untenable. Just this year alone, we witnessed over 2000 people dying to reach Europe.
Those, who do reach Europe, have limited avenues for integration. In highly bureaucratic welfare states, the lack of legal papers dooms migrants to live on the fringes: In Germany, for example, legal residence paper are required at every step: without legal residence, a migrant cannot find housing; without housing, they cannot open a bank account; without a bank account, they cannot find a job (which also requires a work permit); and then, without a job, they cannot finance a life. In several German states, doctors are required to report migrants without papers. At every step, irregular migrants find themselves at odds with a highly functioning bureaucracy set up to serve citizens and regulated guests.
In the long-term, stemming mixed migration requires investing in the economies of sending countries. The short term requires a re-evaluation, whether reforms to Europe’s migration policies can provide humane solutions. The question remains, how will Europe respond, if the tired, poor, and huddled masses continue to risk death to arrive to its safer shores?