Migration and Refugee Crisis in the Mediterranean – What role for International Organizations?

Migration26 Nov 2015Sarah Wolff

The EU migration and refugee crisis has acutely revealed the limits of the Schengen and Dublin systems as well as national reticence to build a European migration and asylum policy. If Europe is not up to the task, can international organizations (IOs), often those that are critical of European states for their inaction, impulse change? What influence do IOs have on EU and Mediterranean migration and refugee policies? 

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The death of Aylan, a 3-year-old boy on a Turkish beach, prompted European leaders and public opinions to acknowledge that Europe is the deadliest migration destination in the world. In spite of this disturbing truth, there is little agreement on an EU solution to the Syrian refugee crisis. In September 2015, the EU Interior Ministers struggled to agree on the relocation of 120,000 refugees through a common compulsory mechanism, while Eastern European countries opposed the idea of ‘sharing the burden’. Progress regarding other solutions such as an European rescue at-sea-mission, the delivery of humanitarian visas or the opening of legal means of migration has also met strong resistance by member states.

By pointing at the failure of EU migration governance, IOs are legitimizing their potential added value in order to improve migration governance towards gentler and better policies fostering international cooperation that are respectful of migrants rights. New research has recently investigated the role of IOs during the crisis and their attempts at framing an alternative debate. If IOs appear to be the best relays due to their extensive knowledge on the ground and their wide memberships to promote a trans-regional governance of migration and refugee policies, beyond the Mediterranean (see Triandafyllidou’s blog), they nonetheless face several constraints and challenges.

1. Overcoming an EU-driven and risk-averse refugee and migration governance

The main problem is that the Mediterranean “crisis” is the absence of a truly transregional migration and refugee governance. The current policy answers are maladjusted to the challenges of international protection and the needs of both refugees and migrants. So far, the agenda has been driven mostly by the EU which has prioritised the fight against irregular migration and the externalisation of border controls.

Internal EU policies and priorities have driven trans-regional initiatives and have been dealt with under the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM). In spite of its revision in 2011, and the inclusion of international protection, third countries’ priorities and needs have often been overlooked in EU’s strategy. Research has shown that the negotiation of EU Readmission Agreements have particularly been cumbersome and lengthy, sometimes inefficient, with countries such as Morocco where the EU has overlooked the domestic political constraints and the regional strategic implications that the readmission of third country nationals would involve. The absence of credible incentives, such as a visa liberalization, has been at the heart of difficult negotiations with Turkey for instance.

EU policies have proved to lack a long-term strategic vision as exemplified by the narrow security focus that often comes out of Council meetings. Thus, even though the European Commission has tried to put protection entry and humanitarian visas for Syrian refugees on the agenda, the lowest common denominator at this stage in the Council is resettlement and a strengthening of EU’s external border management as exemplified in the Council conclusions of 15 October 2015.

2. The challenge of state-driven policies and the absence of comprehensive policies in the Middle East and North Africa

Another big structural constraint for any IO is that migration and refugee policies in the region are state-driven. Even where trans-regional forums such as the Rabat Process or the Khartoum Process have been set up, states remain the gatekeepers of collective decision making on migration and refugee governance.

Comprehensive migration and refugee policies in Middle East and North African countries are lacking, and the recent immigration reform launched by Morocco stands out in this respect. For a very long time these countries have developed policies focused on emigration and managing their own diasporas, mostly in Europe. Yet today, increasing numbers of African migrants have been settling in Morocco to study or to pursue careers. This necessarily changes the domestic impact of migrants in the Moroccan society and has forced the authorities to take immigration seriously.

Mashreq countries such as Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq have dealt with refugees for a long time. Jordan’s unofficial population amounts to 60% of Palestinian refugees. After welcoming several waves of refugees from Iraq in the 1990s, and after the US-led 2003 invasion, Jordan was hosting in November 2015 around 630,000 Syrian refugees. If they have been provided with access to health and education, the government limits Syrian refugees’ freedom of movement, notably in urban areas. Syrian refugees represent today one-fourth of the Lebanese population. The strain on native societies is huge and many warn against the ‘shrinking of the humanitarian space’. In Jordan, the presence of large numbers of refugees have for instance contributed to an increased housing price in rent but also a competition between refugees and natives in income-generating activities, scarce resources like water as well as difficulties of health and education sectors to address everyone’s needs.

3. Framing convincing alternative narratives

Since the beginning of the crisis, IOs have been attempting to frame an alternative narrative on migration and refugees, particularly in Europe. Going beyond the debates on strengthening EU’s borders and the quantitative debates amongst EU member states on refugee relocation, they have focused on three main themes: saving lives; improving safe ways into Europe; and finally mixed migration flows. The following analysis highlights the difficulties of promoting these narratives.

Saving lives. Rescuing migrants at sea is an immediate measure that will stop people dying at sea. This international legal obligation is, however not an EU competence. Each EU member state responds to obligations found in various international conventions, such as the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Practically though, these obligations fall upon shipmasters. This can have adverse effects since some shipmasters prefer to avoid the Mediterranean. In addition, the adoption of Guidelines at Sea has long been a point of contention amongst EU member states, in particular when it comes to the issue of disembarkation during joint operations coordinated by Frontex. Malta and Italy as the main host countries opposed the idea that the host country would have to be the point of arrival. A regulation establishing rules for the surveillance of external sea borders was eventually adopted in 2013 in spite of strong opposition from EU southern member states. Yet much remains to be done, particularly a possible revision of the Frontex mandate. In the meantime UNHCR, partly with EU funding, has put in place a contact group to improve Libya’s response to boats in distress which includes Libyan officials responsible for search and rescue, border security and detention centres for rescued or intercepted boat people. The objective is to reduce the number of refugees and migrants dying at sea by improving communication and coordination between Libyans and international actors active in maritime rescue.

Safe ways to Europe. IOs have been particularly active in advocating for multiplying safe channels for refugees and migrants to reach Europe. First, they argue that more legal migration channels should be opened. Carrier sanctions introduced by Directive 2001/5152 – which penalize commercial airlines and shipping companies for carrying persons without proper visas or travel documents to enter the EU as well as EU visa requirements – are thought to contribute to the proliferation of smuggling. Refugees who have no means to reach Europe legally are therefore forced to undertake dangerous journeys and pay smugglers astronomic amounts.

Secondly, fighting human trafficking and human smuggling is central to both the EU and IOs in providing safe ways to Europe. The MENA region has been particularly impacted. Following the 2003 Iraq war, ‘the number of trafficked women has reportedly increased significantly to Jordan and Syria, but also to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).’ Today the key challenge is to fight human trafficking and smuggling at sea. The High Level Dialogue on Protection at Sea has put in place a two-year Global Initiative on Protection at Sea. This initiative has helped to limit the loss of life at sea as well as exploitation, abuse and violence. This Dialogue is jointly supported by several IOs which stress the need to shift the narrative and to stop viewing, at a global scale, people travelling by sea as criminals.

Addressing stranded migrants and mixed migratory flows. The Syrian crisis and the instability in Libya have profoundly transformed migratory patterns, which has propelled IOs to frame new concepts. First, there are numerous stranded migrants in transit countries such as North Africa, Yemen, Turkey and Greece. Although there is no legal consensus on their status, they are often described as ‘vulnerable migrants’ who are either in transit or at destination, but who do not have support from their government. Furthermore, mixed migration flows refer to both forced migration and economic migration, which follow similar migratory routes. The challenges are for these ‘new’ categories of migrants and refugees to gain rights and to make sure they are protected by international law.

4. IOs’ challenges regarding shaping and influencing EU and Mediterranean policies

Over the last two decades, IOs have been the great winners of the internationalization and regionalization of migration politics as they benefitted from an expansion and diversification of their mandates and role while strengthening their global and regional expertise on migration. IOs are nonetheless trapped between their advocacy role for an alternative EU policy in the Mediterranean and a series of constraints. First, they are financially dependent on EU member states and other donors such as the United States. The refugee crisis has increased this financial constraint and UNHCR has been asking for more regular payments from member states to the main agencies in charge. In June 2015, the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), which brought together UN agencies and NGO partners, was still facing a shortfall of 3.47 billion dollars.

Furthermore, there is a gap between IOs discourse and practice, notably when it comes to their role of implementers of EU-funded projects. For instance, if UNHCR has been prompt in criticising the EU for its externalisation of border control, the agency ‘is still unable to guarantee [refugees and asylum seekers] an effective protection against deportations to Algeria.’ UNHCR finds itself trapped between its humanitarian discourse and identity and its contribution to a ‘global police of populations’.

Thirdly, UNHCR and IOM are also ‘migration managers’. Transregional migration governance in the Mediterranean has been importantly impacted by the new public management approach, that aims to bring a new order to international migration, and enables international organizations administrative actors to justify their involvement in driving performing and cost-effective practices such as capacity-building, training, projects which focus on border control and irregular migration, voluntary and forced return, as well as diasporas and remittances. Administrations and politicians willing to depoliticize an issue where progress is limited due to electoral concerns have encouraged this trend and IOs are no exception to the rule. The isolation from hot political dimension is believed to help rationalizing and improving the performance of migration policies. Thus it is not surprising that the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Agenda lists, as one of the sub-objectives to reduce inequalities among and within countries, the need to ‘facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies’.

Some good practices have nevertheless taken place. Joined-up cooperation across various IOs, NGOs and national governments was quite efficient in the case of the Praesidium project in Lampedusa. The Yemen Mixed Migration Task Force set up in June 2008 is also a good example of interagency strategy to address mixed migration flows. Sometimes IOM and UNHCR have also proven to be good brokers of Europeanization in managing the implementation of EU projects. Another important structural contribution is UNHCR and IOM involvement in the development of Frontex Common Core Curriculum and their role in the Consultative Forum which contributes to the Frontex Fundamental Rights Strategy.

5. Looking ahead

The 2015 developments mark a new rupture between the open migration and humanitarian discourse of IOs and resistance from EU member states and the Council of the EU in particular. How can IOs influence the EU in order to provide efficient, effective migration and asylum policies that respect international law? How can they move from framing the debate to influencing policy on the ground? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Promote IOs’ expertise and knowledge. IOs palliate the deficiencies of EU staff, for instance within the EEAS. Very few delegations have migration or asylum experts. Training EU officials at headquarter and country level could help spread that expertise more widely.
  • Multi-level advocacy strategy. Since EU member states are the main gatekeepers, headquarter advocacy could extend more towards members of the European Parliament, a strategy that UNHCR has already implemented. This should be accompanied in parallel by advocacy and the mainstreaming of IO ideas at country level, and in relation with beneficiary countries and regional forums.
  • Think outside the box and develop interagency cooperation. The phenomenon of mixed migration flows demonstrates that IOs need to adapt rapidly and to think outside the box. As flows are mixed and combine irregular and forced migration with economic migration, more interagency work is needed at headquarter and country level. Beyond joint statements and reports, UNHCR and IOM could, in particular, push the EU to set up a Libyan and Syrian MMTF.
  • Promote a transregional approach. Namely, work on the relevance of adjacent regions to the Mediterranean, in particular the arc of crisis in the Sahel-Sahara. IOs and EU need to work together with Mediterranean partners to develop sub-regional strategies.
  • Capitalise on global membership. The current crisis does not merely concern Europe and its MENA neighbours. IOs can capitalise on their wide membership to advocate different policies from the Gulf countries or even the United States. Potential impact on North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) or even the private sector and commercial ships could ensure the United States will stop seeing the situation as mostly a European problem.
  • Remain modest. Institutional expansionism, if not designed properly, can increase IOs’ dependence on funders such as the EU, but also dilute IOs’ objectives and thus contribute to their irrelevance vis-à-vis EU and Mediterranean countries.
  • Widen cooperation with Frontex. This should apply to border management, training and scrutinising guards’ activities. This would foster a socialization of EU border guards to international legal norms.
  • Ensure the EU and Mediterranean partners reform their migration and refugee policies. This could be done via specific task forces that could foster national dialogue with beneficiary countries.

Furthermore, there is a gap between IOs discourse and practice, notably when it comes to their role of implementers of EU-funded projects. For instance, if UNHCR has been prompt in criticising the EU for its externalisation of border control, the agency ‘is still unable to guarantee [refugees and asylum seekers] an effective protection against deportations to Algeria.’ UNHCR finds itself trapped between its humanitarian discourse and identity and its contribution to a ‘global police of populations’.


This is a summary of a policy brief on Migration and Refugee Governance in the Mediterranean: Europe and International Organizations at a Crossroads.

It was published with IAI within the context of the New-Med Research Network.