The tragic deaths of migrants travelling to Europe across the Mediterranean are becoming a headache for Europe’s leaders and citizens. 1,727 migrants perished in the first four months of 2015 compared to 56 during the same period the year before. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) predicts that the death toll of migrants in the Mediterranean could top 30,000 in 2015.
While immigration remains high on the political agenda in European countries, not least Denmark, the debate often oversimplifies the reality of who migrants are and why they set out for Europe. Two things are certain. First, the increase in the numbers of migrants to Europe is directly linked to major upheaval in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and elsewhere. Second, the rising use of maritime routes is a response to heightened EU border control measures along Eastern Mediterranean land routes from Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria.
Who is migrating?
Anyone arriving to Europe without proper documentation is called an ‘irregular migrant’. This label applies to anyone from asylum seekers and refugees to people compelled to leave their homes due to a lack of opportunity.
The line between an asylum seeker and economic migrant can be murky. To receive refugee or humanitarian status, a person must prove they are escaping persecution or generalized war. In Denmark, asylum seekers often have to demonstrate they faced individual persecution in order to be granted protection. People who migrate due to profound insecurity in their home country are often denied asylum.
As crises across the Middle East and Africa unfold, they both reveal and predict the profiles of people seeking refuge in Europe. Irregular migrants to Europe tend to be men in their twenties, while Syrians are the most common nationality.
Data from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) suggest that 75 percent of Syrian refugees in countries neighbouring Syria are women and children, while 74 percent of Syrians arriving in Greece are men, predominantly aged 20-28.The reason for this is that while children and women are more vulnerable than young males in conflict zones, the prohibitive cost of traveling to Europe means many families opt to send one person ahead. When forced to choose, it makes sense to send young, single males.
While tens of thousands seek entry to Europe each year, the continent is no golden ticket. It’s a far-off destination that requires a journey fraught with risk, which might explain why eighty percent of refugees flee to nearby countries. While the international community agrees that caring for refugees is a collective task, countries like Kenya, Jordan and Lebanon bear the heaviest burden.
When people do decide to migrate without documentation to Europe, it is often after attempting to make a living in regional urban centres or neighbouring countries. Still, individual motivations for striking out for Europe are as numerous as the migrants themselves.
Social networks, language, and colonial connections play significant roles, while anthropological research has documented that economic migrants from the same local area often congregate in the same European urban areas, supporting each other as they attempt to find work.
Why migrate without papers?
If there were an accessible legal pathway for seeking asylum in European states, more migrants would seize that opportunity. A select few refugees are relocated to European countries by the UNHCR according to a quota system. But, for most, seeking asylum in the European Union requires physically coming to Europe to lodge an application.
Migrants don’t resort to illegal methods to enter Europe in order to cut costs. There are regular flights from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe, and a flight from Cairo to Copenhagen, for example, can cost less than 2000 kroner.
But without the proper documentation, these migrants are unable to buy tickets, forcing them into the arms of human smugglers. While the cost of these journeys varies widely depending on how far the migrant must travel, it can cost tens of thousands of kroner to make it into Europe.
The process entails leaving family and familiarity behind and paying sizable sums for a voyage that is typically broken up into several legs. Asylum seekers who do make it to Europe often end up in detention or asylum centres. Amnesty International estimates that around 600,000 migrants are detained each year, mostly without a court decision. EU law allows migrants to be held for 18 months without charge.
Why take boats?
In 2012, Frontex, the European Union external border agency, detected almost four times more irregular migrants crossing into the EU over the Turkish land border than over the Mediterranean. In mid-July 2012, Frontex instigated Operation Aspida, which rapidly heightened surveillance of the Greek-Turkish border.
Almost nine hundred additional police officers and technicians were deployed, detention centres were expanded, the time period allowed for detected migrants to leave Greece was reduced from thirty to seven days, and raids were conducted across the country.
In just the first month of stepped-up surveillance, detections dropped by half as word travelled that this route was no longer viable. Consequently, traffic along the route reduced drastically, and was only partially diverted to sea routes and the Bulgarian land route.
The UNHCR speculates that many migrants subsequently opted to remain in Turkey. Frontex’s annual report for 2012 deemed Operation Aspida a success, since fewer people were believed to have entered Greece without documentation. This reveals Frontex’s priorities: to keep undesired foreigners out of Europe rather than to determine who qualifies for the right to asylum.
In 2013, the number of undocumented migrants detected in the central Mediterranean quadrupled compared to 2012. This acceleration can be explained in part by displacement due to the war in Syria. Still, it is widely accepted that closing the common land routes has merely displaced the traffic to the more treacherous sea route.
The policies of European governments toward migrants leave plenty to be desired. In 2010, Human Rights Watch judged Greece’s asylum system broken, while a representative for Médecins Sans Frontières told The Guardian in 2014 that migrants arriving in the country were “being subjected to a living hell”.
Italy, too, has shouldered much of the responsibility for rescuing migrants travelling across the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels. Between October 2013 and October 2014, its navy launched Operation Mare Nostrum, which rescued over 150,000 migrants.
Italy ended Mare Nostrum after other EU member states refused to support the operation financially. In its place, Frontex launched Operation Triton, which patrolled much closer to the Italian border. Paring-down the rescue effort is thought to be partly responsible for the dramatic increase in Mediterranean migrant deaths. In April, EU heads of state agreed to triple Triton’s budget and increase its scope to match that of Mare Nostrum.
This does little to address the central challenge of how Europe treats migrants. Instead of treating migrants as a collective responsibility, the Dublin Protocol dictates that asylum applicants must be processed in the country they first arrive. This places enormous pressure on Southern European countries like Greece and Italy.
The UNHCR estimates that over two-thirds of irregular migrants arriving in Italy are not identified or fingerprinted, allowing them to travel north and lodge applications in other European countries. Under the Dublin Convention southern countries have no motivation to ensure all asylum seekers are processed because they lack the resources to process these cases.
Distribution of irregular migrants across the continent is very uneven, however. According to Eurostat, while Germany processed 97,275 asylum applications in 2014 and France 68,5000, Estonia processed only 55 and Portugal 155.
This imbalance led the EU Commission to propose in April a quota system to share refugees between member states more equitably. Denmark does not participate in these negotiations due to its EU opt-out on defence affairs, but Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard would prefer if Denmark did engage on this issue. Although Germany is pushing for the deal, British and French opposition will likely scupper it.
This inaction will frustrate the UN, whose High Commission on Refugees has called on North European countries to accept migrants from their southern neighbours. This would increase security, they argue, as it would encourage countries like Italy to register more migrants without also having to process their applications.
“At a time of increased security concerns over movements from Libya, this situation is abnormal,” UNHCR’s Europe bureau director, Vincent Cochetel, told The Guardian, referring to the high number of migrants that pass through Italy without first being identified.
“Not all those saying that they are Syrians or Palestinians are Syrians or Palestinians. And not all of them are refugees.”
Cochetel’s point is that not all asylum claims conform equally to the definition of a refugee, and uncontrolled migration into Europe can undermine efforts to support those most in need of protection. Countries around the world have pledged to directly accept 90,000 Syrian refugees on humanitarian grounds, with Germany offering to take a third of that number.
But with over three million Syrian refugees, these pledges hardly lift the burden from the countries that house the vast majority of displaced persons. The European asylum system does not succeed in identifying and offering asylum to those most in need. The high threshold that is needed to attempt seeking asylum ensures means that more resourceful migrants tend to be rewarded.
As the EU steps up border surveillance, migrants will continue to be funnelled toward the more dangerous sea route, while little is being done to limit the numbers who brave the journey. They will keep coming, and what happens when they arrive is our responsibility. M