The growing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing turmoil in Africa and the Middle East poses complex challenges for European policymakers still grappling with weak economic growth and fractured national politics. Europe, according to a 2014 report from the International Organization for Migration, is currently the most dangerous destination for irregular migration in the world, and the Mediterranean Sea the world’s most dangerous border crossing. To date, the European Union's collective response to its growing migrant crisis has been ad hoc and, critics charge, more focused on securing the bloc's borders than on protecting the rights of migrants and refugees. With nationalist parties ascendant in many member states and concerns about Islamic terrorism looming large across the continent, it remains unclear if political headwinds will facilitate a new climate of immigration reform.
Where do these migrants and refugees come from?
Political upheaval in the Middle East and across Africa is reshaping migration trends in Europe. The number of illegal border-crossing detections in the EU surged in 2011, as thousands of Tunisians started to arrive at the Italian island of Lampedusa, seventy miles from Tunisia, following the onset of the Arab Spring. Sub-Saharan Africans who had previously migrated to Libya followed in 2011–2012, fleeing unrest in the post-Qaddafi era. The most recent surge in detections along the EU's maritime borders has been attributed to the growing numbers of Syrian and Eritrean refugees.
According to European Commission statistics, the EU received approximately 626,000 applications for international protection in 2014, the highest number of asylum applicants within the bloc since 1992.
Illegal border crossings most often fall along several major routes spanning the southern and eastern borders of Europe. The central Mediterranean passage, with Italy serving as the main entry point to Europe, is currently the most frequented for migrants and asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Egypt, and Somalia. Deteriorating security in Libya, Central African Republic, and South Sudan are also seen as contributing factors to the migrant influx.
Making a distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants is not always clear-cut, even though these groups are entitled to different levels of assistance and protection under international law. This gray area is frequently exacerbated by the inconsistent methods with which asylum applications are often processed across the EU's twenty-eight member states.
Which EU member states have been hardest hit by the crisis?
EU member states hardest hit by the economic crisis—Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain—have also served as the main points of entry for migrants and refugees because of their proximity to the Mediterranean Basin.
In 2008, the Eastern Mediterranean route saw a sharp spike in irregular migration, and by 2012, 51 percent of migrants (PDF) entering the EU illegally did so via Greece. This trend shifted in 2013 after Greek authorities enhanced border controls under Operation Aspida (or “Shield”), which included the construction of a barbed-wire fence at the Greek-Turkish border.
Increased patrols in the waters off western Africa were thought to have effectively curbed migration along the Western Mediterranean passage to Spain in recent years, but 2014 saw a dramatic uptick in attempted border crossings from migrants and asylum seekers fleeing conflict in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, and South Sudan. According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, the number of migrants trying to enter Spain illegally in 2014 rose by almost 70 percent from the previous year to 12,549. And despite efforts to fortify the borders of Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish territories that are contiguous with Morocco, a steady stream of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa continue to scale the fences of these two enclaves.
However, the most heavily trafficked route along Europe's Southern perimeter remains the Central Mediterranean passage from Libya to Italy, which has borne the burden of the most recent wave of irregular migration. According to the EU border agency Frontex, there were approximately forty thousand illegal border crossings (PDF) along this route in 2013, almost quadruple the number of crossings detected in 2012. This passage is also considered one of the most perilous: The IOM estimates that a majority of the 3,279 Mediterranean migrant deaths in 2014 occurred along this route; the organization says that the toll could reach 30,000 by the end of 2015. Several incidents involving capsized boats, including one in April 2015 that killed more than 800 people, have garnered global attention and elicited calls from human rights activists, Pope Francis, and policymakers for a united European response to the migrant crisis.
Entry-point states bear unilateral responsibility for migrants under the Dublin Regulation (PDF). Revised in 2013, this EU law continues to stipulate that asylum seekers must remain in the first European country they enter and that country is solely responsible for examining migrants' asylum applications. Migrants who travel to other EU states face deportation back to the EU country they originally entered.
To facilitate burden sharing across the EU, entry-point states along the Southern periphery have called for the suspension of the Dublin Regulation. However, northern states like Germany are quick to point out that almost a third of 2014's 626,000 asylum applications were made within its borders.
“Both the burden and the sharing are in the eye of the beholder. I don't know if any EU country will ever find the equity that is being sought,” says Center for Strategic and International Studies Senior fellow Heather Conley.
What conditions do these migrants face?
Migrant detention centers along Europe's southern periphery—in Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain—have all invited charges of abuse and neglect over the years. Many rights groups contend that a number of these centers violate Article III of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment.
“We used to think of migration as a human security issue: protecting people and providing assistance,” says Geneva Center for Security Policy deputy director Khalid Koser. “Now we clearly perceive—or misperceive—migration as a national security issue. And the risk of securitizing migration is that you risk legitimizing extraordinary responses.”
"The risk of securitizing migration is that you risk legitimizing extraordinary responses."
— Khalid Koser, Geneva Center for Security Policy
In Italy, migrants face fines and deportation under the controversial Bossi-Fini immigration law, which stipulates that they must secure work contracts before entering the country. This 2002 law makes illegal migration—and aiding illicit migrants— punishable by fine or jail. Despite its severity, many say the law has done little to curb the flow of migrants in recent years.
The situation is especially acute in Greece, which has been hit hard by a five-year debt crisis and successive rounds of austerity measures. Overcrowded facilities lacking proper ventilation, clean water, and sanitation have been blamed for compromising migrants' health, and police mistreatment and harassment continue to elicit censure from rights groups. Right-wing extremist groups like Golden Dawn that campaign on anti-immigrant platforms have also contributed to an uptick in xenophobic violence. The country's soaring unemployment rates and drastic cuts in public spending mean there is scant economic opportunity and welfare support for migrants and refugees.
The budget for migration issues in many of the Mediterranean states remains limited because all EU states have curbed public spending in the wake of the crippling economic crisis. Frontex saw its annual budget cut from €118 million in 2011 to €89 million in 2014. And while the European Commission recently pledged an additional €13.7 million to Italy for its migrant-rescue efforts, many rights groups say that these funds are insufficient.
In contrast, migrants in the richer north find comparatively well-run asylum centers and generous resettlement policies. But these harder-to-reach countries often cater to migrants who have the wherewithal to navigate entry-point states or obtain expensive travel documents that ensure safe air passage with the assistance of traffickers. These countries remain inaccessible to most migrants looking for work or international protection.
How has the European Union responded?
As with the sovereign-debt crisis, national interests have consistently trumped European ones in the areas of migration and asylum. This was illustrated in 2011, when France briefly reintroduced border controls in the free-movement Schengen area, a cornerstone of the European project, in response to the influx of thousands of Tunisian and Libyan refugees in neighboring Italy.
The adoption of “fortress” policies by several EU member states has come at a high cost, some rights groups contend. In Greece, the implementation of stricter border-control operations, like its Aspida program, has taken precedence over reforming a dysfunctional asylum system. In Italy, the country's expansive Mare Nostrum (or “Our Sea”) rescue program was phased out in October 2014, only to be replaced by Frontex's more limited Triton program, which has a third of the operating budget of its predecessor.
The more economically stable northern countries have continued to offer more inclusive migration and asylum policies. In September 2013, Sweden announced that it would offer permanent residency to all Syrian refugees. Germany also committed to offering ten thousand Syrian refugees temporary residency in 2013. But some experts say these policies run counter to the trend of anti-immigrant sentiment that is gaining hold in both countries as well as across much of Europe.
"Europe has historically embraced more ethnic than civic approaches to nationhood, unlike the United States, and that is part of the reason immigration is proving so difficult." —Charles Kupchan
“The backdrop to this [growing anti-immigrant sentiment] is the difficulty that many European countries have in integrating minorities into the social mainstream. Many of these immigrants are coming from Muslim countries, and the relationship between immigrant Muslim communities and the majority populations is not good,” says former CFR Senior Fellow Charles Kupchan.
The recent economic crisis has also spurred a demographic shift across the continent, with citizens of crisis-hit states migrating to the north in record numbers in search of work. And while the issue of intra-EU migration has sparked anxiety over social welfare benefits in recent months, “those who are coming from the Middle East and North Africa tend to provoke more heated political debate because of this issue of communal cleavage and integration,” says Kupchan.
What are the main proposals for managing the crisis?
Prompted by the unprecedented number of migrant deaths at sea in April 2015, the EU adopted a wide-ranging ten-point plan to curb the tide of migrants and asylum seekers along the Mediterranean. However, some critics charge that the plan's targeting of smugglers fails to recognize the larger problem of failed states in the Middle East and Africa that leave many with no recourse but to flee. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was also quick to point out that the plan would require a funding commitment from all twenty-eight member states. The expected wrangling among crash-strapped governments could slow the implementation of any new policy measures.
Separately, the European Parliament voted in favor of establishing a framework for a common European asylum system in June 2013. However, implementation and enforcement across the twenty-eight-member bloc remains a challenge, and many policymakers say that the legal framework lacks clarity and still gives too much discretion to member states.
“Migration is an issue that strikes at the heart of sovereignty. It's about national identity, economic competitiveness, security—so it's not surprising that governments are not willing to cede much ground,” says CSIS's Conley.
While most EU member states have generally been receptive to recommendations for expanded maritime patrols in the Mediterranean and the adoption of technology and information sharing tools, there has been less agreement about instituting policies that safeguard the rights of asylum seekers and migrants.
Experts say that any movement on immigration reform will be difficult with nationalist parties across the continent continuing to make significant gains and the threat of European jihadists returning home from the Middle East and North Africa continues to hold sway in public.
What are the potential consequences of an inadequate EU response?
The lack of a coordinated EU response to Middle Eastern and African migration in the near-to-mid-term is illustrative of the ways in which individual countries continue to see this issue through the lens of national security rather than international protection.
“The political response of countries pushing migrants out or incarcerating them for long stretches runs counter to the very values that the EU promotes, like protecting human life and the right to asylum,” says Conley.
In addition to undermining core values of the EU, Conley fears that a sustained influx of migrants could spur more member states to suspend Schengen, as Denmark and France did in 2011, for longer stretches of time. “I suspect if the politics surrounding migration really start getting messy, you'll see countries reintroducing internal borders with greater frequency, which means they would have chiseled away at one of the main pillars of Europe, which is the free movement of people,” she says.
The BBC provides a statistical breakdown of Europe's migrant crisis.
Mattathias Schwartz profiles one priest's efforts to help African migrants in Europe for the New Yorker.
UNHCR's 2013 Global Trends report (PDF) finds forced displacement at an eighteen-year high worldwide.
Frontex's 2014 Global Risk Analysis (PDF) provides an overview of irregular migration trends across Europe.
This Guardian interactive invites users to experience the harrowing choices asylum seekers must make as they attempt to access Europe.
Der Spiegel's ongoing coverage of asylum and migration issues in Europe provides insight into the non-EU and intra-EU migration debates taking place across the continent.