Europe's Migration Crisis

Author: Jeanne Park, Deputy Director
April 28, 2014

Alessandro Bianchi/Courtesy Reuters

The rising tide of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing turmoil in Africa and the Middle East poses complex challenges for European policymakers still reeling from the political fallout of recent economic upheaval. To date, Europe's collective response to its growing migration 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. Many European Union countries struggling with high levels of unemployment and reduced government services have also seen a rise in political extremism and xenophobia. These developments have raised concerns about an erosion of EU core values like human rights and travel freedoms opened up under the Schengen Agreement. With nationalist parties projected to make big gains in the May 2014 European elections, 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 North Africa is reshaping migration trends in Europe. In 2011, the number of illegal border-crossing detections in the EU jumped by nearly 35 percent from the previous two years to 141,000 as thousands of Tunisians started to arrive at the Italian island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily, following the onset of the Arab Spring. Sub-Saharan Africans fleeing unrest in Libya followed in 2011–2012. In 2013, European border agency Frontex reported another spike of detections along the EU's maritime borders, this time due to the growing numbers of Syrian refugees. The EU also received more than 350,000 applications for international protection in 2013, the highest number since data collection began in 2008.

Illegal border crossings most often fall along several major routes spanning the southern and eastern borders of Europe. In 2013, a surge in detections occurred along the central Mediterranean passage, with Lampedusa and Sicily serving as the main entry points for migrants and asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea, Egypt, and Somalia. Deteriorating security situations in Libya, Central African Republic, and South Sudan are also seen as contributing factors to this growing migration crisis. Some experts believe that the withdrawal of International Security Assistance Force troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 will spur an exodus of Afghan asylum seekers to Europe.

Making a distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants is not always clear cut, even though they 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?

The EU member states hardest hit by the economic crisis—Greece, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, and Spain—have also served as the main points of entry for migrants and refugees because of their proximity to the Mediterranean Basin.

The Eastern Mediterranean route has seen the highest level of irregular migration since 2008. In 2012, 51 percent of migrants (PDF) entering the EU illegally did so via Greece. That 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.

"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." —Heather Conley, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Increased Spanish patrols in the waters off western Africa have curbed migration along the Western Mediterranean passage in recent years. However, 2013 saw an uptick in activity along the Strait of Gibraltar, with new reports surfacing of migrants traveling in dinghies to elude detection.

With the resurgent popularity of the Central Mediterranean passage in 2013, Italy and Malta have borne the brunt of the most recent wave of irregular migration. According to Frontex, there were more than 31,000 illegal border crossings along this route during the first nine months of 2013, almost quadruple the number of detections there compared to the same period in 2012. Several major incidents of boats capsizing off the coast of Lampedusa last year, including one in October 2013 that claimed more than 360 lives, garnered global attention and elicited calls from human rights activists, Pope Francis, and policymakers for a united European response to the migration 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 have called for the suspension of the Dublin Regulation. However, northern European countries like Germany, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Belgium point out that they registered 70 percent of the 332,000 applications received by the EU in 2012.

"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, Spain, and Malta—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) a punishable offense. Despite its severity, some say it has done little to curb the flow of migrants in recent years.

The situation is especially acute in Greece, which hit hard by a four-year-old 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. Ascendant 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.

While these Mediterranean states received about half of the 1.82 billion the EU set aside for external border funds for 2007–2013, the budget for migration issues is limited because all EU states have curbed public spending in the wake of the economic crisis. Similarly, Frontex saw its annual budget cut from 118 million in 2011 to 85 million in 2013. In December 2013, the European Commission created an emergency fund of 50 million to help countries facing "high migratory pressure," with 30 million set aside for Italy. However, many critics charge that these funds are insufficient to address the magnitude of the situation.

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 migrant groups 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. And while Aspida has successfully lowered the numbers of migrants entering the EU via the Greek-Turkish border, many rights activists believe that fortified land borders have simply pushed refugees and migrants to risk more dangerous sea passages.

The more economically stable countries of the north 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 offer ten thousand Syrian refugees temporary residency late last year. 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, Council on Foreign Relations

"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 CFR's Charles Kupchan. "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," he says.

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?

In June 2013, the European Parliament voted in favor of establishing a framework for a common European asylum system. However, implementation and enforcement across the twenty-eight-member bloc remains a challenge, and many critics charge 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.

A 2013 Mediterranean Task Force report (PDF) stressed the needs for increased cooperation with countries of origin and transit to curb trafficking and more legal paths for migrants. The report proposed allowing migrants to apply for asylum from countries of origin or transit, thereby eliminating the need for risky and illegal crossings, as well as issuing humanitarian visas to refugees from recognized conflict zones like Syria.

These proposals have failed to gain much traction. Experts say that any movement on immigration reform is unlikely before the European Parliament elections in May 2014, in which nationalist parties across the continent are expected to make significant gains.

What are the potential consequences of an inadequate EU response?

The lack of a coordinated EU response to Middle Eastern and North African migration in the near-to-mid-term could exacerbate the ways in which individual countries see migration 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 France did, 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.

Policymakers also worry about the longer-term effects of rising xenophobia and nationalism. Many cite Switzerland's recent vote to impose quotas on immigration from EU countries as an example of how mobilized anti-immigration parties can fundamentally change a country's politics.

"The longer these nationalist parties have the upper hand and become more mobilized and professionalized, then it be may be that they can continue the spirit of anti-immigration even once Europe begins to recover economically. That is my concern," says the Geneva Center's Koser.

Additional Resources

Der Spiegel looks at how fear of refugees and migrants could become a top issue in Europe's spring election.

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 2013 Global Risk Analysis (PDF) provides an overview of irregular migration trends across Europe.

"The Refugee Challenge," a 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.

More on this topic from CFR