Geopoliticalmonitor sits down with Gabriele Quattrocchi, the Vice Director of Mediterranean Affairs, to discuss the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe.
Mediterranean Affairs is a center for studies whose main goal is to provide analyses, reports, and dossiers on various issues of international policy, security, economic and social challenges concerning the Mediterranean area.
What are some factors beyond the Syria conflict that are driving the current surge of migrants heading to Europe?
What is happening at the European Union’s borders is definitely something out of the ordinary, but it is not coming out of the blue. The sharp escalation in the number of people trying to reach EU member states is not only due to a mix of driving factors, but it should also be seen from a global perspective. In 2014, The UNHCR pointed out that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally-displaced people worldwide had, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people. Last year, the UN refugee agency reported almost 60 million people were forced to flee their home countries.
Many of them are willing to risk perilous journey for a chance to start over in one of the EU member states. Violence in origin countries is beyond a shadow of a doubt the first and foremost pushing factor, but it should be included in a broader framework of considerable global challenges ranging from persistent poverty and polarization to climate change and environmental sustainability. The multifaceted and overlapping motivations behind their journey embrace the chronic deficiency of employment prospects or access to education, the worsening conditions in countries of first asylum, such as Turkey and Jordan which have become overwhelmed by protection responsibilities, and the political volatility in the Maghreb and Middle East which has taken other destination options off the table.
The current escalation results from a combination of intersecting factors, some more recent than others. It is enough to think of the political upheaval in the MENA region, also known as “Arab springs” which started in 2011, the unrest of the post-Gaddafi era, and the deterioration of the political and social situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sub-Saharan countries such as Eritrea.
What are the main routes that migrants are currently using to get to Europe?
Migration routes change depending on the conditions in the country of origin, transit, and of course destination. The main routes for getting to Europe are the Eastern Mediterranean route, the Central Mediterranean route, and the Western Balkan route.
The Eastern Mediterranean Route is the passage used by migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, or Cyprus. This route has become of primary importance in 2015. About 400,000 people have crossed from Turkey to Greece in the first nine months of 2015 alone according to the EU’s FRONTEX border agency. This number results from the fact that Syrians, leaving their home country or the country of first asylum, choose to undertake the journey from Turkey to Greece (especially, to the Greek Islands) because it is safer and shorter than the alternatives. However, people keep on dying in the Aegean. Several shipwrecks has been recorded since the beginning of 2016.
Afghan, Iraqi, and Sub-Saharan nationals also arrive in Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean route.
The Central Mediterranean route refers to the migratory influx coming from North Africa towards Italy and Malta. Here, the Eastern and Western Africa routes often converge on Libya, which acts as a connection point. More than 130,000 migrants arrived in Europe via the Central Mediterranean route between January and September. According to the UNHCR, thousands of people lost their life in the last two years trying to reach the Southern shore of the EU on smugglers’ boats departing from Libya, Tunisia, or Egypt. Even though the Eastern Mediterranean route has become more relevant in terms of numbers in 2015, the Central Mediterranean route remains the main entry point for sub-Saharan nationals with few alternative routes, such as the Western Mediterranean route, i.e. the sea passage from North Africa to the Spanish coasts, as well as the land route through Ceuta and Melilla. Eritreans and Nigerians have been the largest groups traveling through the Central Mediterranean channel in 2015, along with Sudanese, Somali, Moroccan, and Cameroonian migrants.
The Western Balkan route refers to two main migratory flows: the first entails people coming from the Western Balkan countries themselves (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania), while the second one chiefly involves Asian migrants who initially entered the EU through the Greek-Turkish land or sea borders and then went through the Western Balkans into Hungary. This route shows the highest relative increase at the European Union level in detections of Syrian and Afghan nationals. According to FRONTEX, about 400,000 people reached the EU through this route.
How much bigger are recent migrant flows compared to historical averages?
In the history of the EU, the current migration flows are unprecedented in terms of people involved. It is massive and affects numerous EU countries in various ways. The recent chaotic flows result from a combination of triggering pull-and-push factors: whereas the outbreak of new conflicts in Africa and in the Middle East can be considered a push factor, the relative economic wealth and political stability of the EU are historically supposed to have exerted a significant pull effect on immigrants.
If we take into account the data provided by FRONTEX, then, in 2014 there was an increase almost three fold in the number of illegal border crossings by third-country citizens via sea or land routes, in comparison with 2013, due to a large increase in border crossings by citizens of Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea.
Which EU countries are bearing the brunt of the influx, and what is the immediate impact on these frontline countries?
The European Union, as a whole, has been overwhelmed by these events. The frontline countries proved unprepared to manage an influx of people of this sort. Migrants arrive in an economic situation of disparity across the EU, with the hardest hit being those states serving as the main entry points for migrants. The bulk of the migratory flows has primarily exposed countries of the Southern Schengen border, like Italy, Greece (already affected by a high unemployment rates), and Hungary.
Italy is among the most trafficked entry point for migrants. The Italian government launched Operation Mare Nostrum in 2013, whose basic aim was to rescue people from distress and death risk in the Strait of Sicily. Yet, the humanitarian rescue was far from being supported with the establishment of proper means to host the migrants and manage the legal procedures needed to define their status. The migrants were gathered in reception centers that were, and continue to be, the target of heavy criticism.
Greece enhanced border controls under the Operation Aspida in 2013, but the most recent upsurge of migrants coming from Turkey strained the Greek government and public opinion at a time when the dust from the debt crisis still hasn’t settled.
In Hungary, the 2015 migrant influx – more than 140,000 illegal crossings according to Frontex – led Prime Minister Viktor Orban to raise a barbed-wire fence on the border with Serbia in July 2015. With Hungary becoming increasingly difficult to enter, migrants may try to enter the EU via Romania and Croatia. Media coverage on the situation in Hungary laid bare the shortcomings of overall migratory policy: the closure of the borders created a severe bottleneck, trapping migrants in Serbia and forcing them to camp along the border while other stranded migrants at the railway stations transformed them into temporary refugee camps.
What is important to bear in mind is that even though Italy, Greece, and Hungary are apparently on the front line, most migrants do not ask for asylum in these countries, but rather try to transit through these countries in order to reach Germany or, less frequently , Sweden, Austria and the UK.
What are some of the political consequences of the refugee crisis on the national and the EU level?
The refugee crisis has turned political priorities upside down, as the mixed-migration phenomenon has coincided with one of the deepest sovereign debt crises which brought with it financial instability and high unemployment rates, especially for some EU member states. As a result, national interests are very high on the political agenda of most European leaders. These national economic and social priorities have consistently trumped a common European answer to the refugee crisis.
Against this background, many nationalist and anti-immigrant parties have gathered support over recent years given the difficulty that many European countries have in integrating minorities into the social fabric, and perhaps this is one of the main reasons behind the reluctance of some states in receiving refugees from the MENA region. The situation has also been exacerbated by the threat of terrorism, which has lately put at risk the principle of free movement of people in the Union after events in Paris and Brussels.
In May and September 2015, the Commission, acting in agreement with governments like the Italian, German, and French governments, launched the first and second plan for the relocation of refugees that had entered in Italy, Greece and Hungary, but now several countries reintroduced border controls to disrupt the migration routes.
Do you believe the Cologne attacks will be looked back on as a turning point in the EU’s refugee crisis?
What happened in Cologne was as repulsive as it was unexpected. One of the questions which arose immediately in the public debate was if Germany, and generally speaking the EU, is capable of bearing the burden of an increasing migrants influx, while assuring EU citizens’ safety at the same time. It is not easy to make forecasts. What changed in the short-term is the public opinion’s perception of the newcomers in the EU’s wealthiest countries. The events in Cologne, along with the terrorist attacks in Paris, have made it even less likely other EU countries will let large numbers of refugees in, and have shouldered nationalist and demagogic political positions.
Germany is rethinking its open-door refugee policy, even counting on the support of Turkey which expects the EU to deliver €3 billion, despite Italy’s complaints. Austria announced it would limit the number of refugees granted asylum to no more than 1.5 percent of the population over the next four years. Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, announced that the country has “temporarily cancelled” its adherence to the Schengen agreement, and along with him the Slovenian and Croatian governments announced they would adopt the same measures. The events in Cologne and Paris have sped up an inescapable process. The EU has to get the refugee crisis under control, as not only the Schengen system is put into question, but the European Union project as a whole. The next EU summit in March will be crucial to assess the future of the Union.
What are the chances for a comprehensive, EU-level migrant policy?
Short-term approaches to the management of migratory inflows have failed so far. The rise of national interests and the presence of too many and various political actors which pursue their own policies resulted in a fragmentation of the policy response.
Just to be clear, the EU and EU member states act against the legal backdrop of the Treaty of Lisbon which frames the migration and asylum policy among those competences that are shared by the EU and its member states. As a result, the EU is not exclusively entitled to act in this matter. Nonetheless, EU countries have managed to increasingly harmonize legislative and operational actions in different aspects of migration and asylum policy over the years. Despite this development, the EU has never succeeded in adopting comprehensive measures on legal migration from non-EU countries, for instance. This is because of the strong opposition of several member states whose governments pursue their own national agenda even though they have committed themselves to pursuing certain objectives together in the EU framework. Therefore, while the Commission has the opportunity to propose common EU migration measures, it is up to EU countries to actually adopt them in the Council. The multiplicity of actors involved also has an impact on the chances of a comprehensive approach. Competences shared by the EU and its member states turn out to be tricky if diverging interests and goals are at stake.
Does the migrant crisis pose an existential risk for the European Union?
It is a critical moment for the EU. Social and political side effects of the migratory inflows, beyond the economic ones, are contributing to shape what has already been labelled as the failure of the EU to help people turning up on its countries’ doors after fleeing violence, conflicts, and persecutions. Southern and Eastern EU member states have been left bearing the brunt of the influx, notwithstanding the pledge for a fairer distribution of refugees and asylum seekers. Now, against a background in which the crisis seems to threaten the EU most relevant achievement, i.e. the Schengen agreement, the Union is at a crossroads. The issue at stake is not the very existence of the EU but the essence of the EU as it has been dreamt over 60 years.
Europol estimated that human traffickers have made from 2-4 billion pounds from the migrant crisis so far. Can you tell us a bit about these trafficking networks?
Trafficking in human beings is one of the fastest growing transnational organized crimes and most lucrative illegal businesses worldwide. This sort of criminal activity is regularly cited along with the smuggling of migrants. They are often confused as equivalent but, for the sake of clarity, even though both human trafficking and smuggling entail the recruitment, transference, and delivery of people from a country to another, what draws a line between the two activities is the people’s will. Traffickers exploit people they have enslaved whereas smugglers take money from those people willing to leave for another country. In this case, migrants “rely on” smugglers to get to their destination and are free at the end of the journey.
It is apparent that the changing geopolitical context has contributed to the enhancement of both illegal activities. The increase in smuggling, in areas where centralized state control and power is compromised or lacking (e.g. Libya), has contributed to blur the line between smuggling and trafficking. Militias and armed groups have exploited migrants in transit in order to make money. Instability in the MENA regions especially boosts the demand of smuggling services from people, such as Syrians, who can gather together the economic resources needed to pay smugglers. However, instability also means growing complexity in the geography of the smuggling routes, resulting in rising risks for migrants undertaking longer and more difficult journeys. All these factors single out a dramatic and progressive overlapping between human trafficking and smuggling activities as the lack of protection and the need of the migrants to accumulate the necessary resources make them more vulnerable to exploitation.
The players in the smuggling market can be organized in different ways, from structured criminal groups to individual smugglers. Furthermore, they develop the specific know-how required in their own territory. The MENA smuggling routes are basically managed by two kinds of networks: the first deals with the recruitment and movement of the migrants by land (migrants coming from remote regions and willing to enter Europe need to reach the shore of the Mediterranean basin before embarking on the sea journey), the second one organizes sea crossings.
What evidence is there of the oft-cited security risk of terrorist infiltration onto the continent via refugee flows?
This issue is at the center of an animated debate in the EU. According to some observers, the increase of migration flows goes hand in hand with the tangible threat of terrorism in Europe, because migrants would pose a considerable risk to the EU’s security as terrorist could infiltrate among them. However, one should be careful in drawing this sort of fil rouge. Indeed, there is no reliable evidence supporting this opinion so far. What happened in Paris is one of the first points on which one should reflect given that all the terrorists of the 11/13 attacks were European citizens. The migration crisis is definitely too current to allow a sound assessment in this respect, without considering that in most countries, information and data on terrorist activities are confidential.