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The Migration Trail – European migration policies in a globalizing world

Karlijn Muiderman is now Anticipatory climate governance researcher at Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at the Utrecht University.

As the influx of migrants to Europe unfolds as the biggest humanitarian and political crisis of 2015, European policy-makers are being challenged to come up with unified responses. Currently, they mainly focus on curbing migration through strengthening border controls. Yet, there are several medium and long-term policy alternatives that take into account humanitarian, socio-political and socioeconomic impacts. Based on an analysis of the different drivers of migration along the trail and by exchanging knowledge and expertise on a broad range of migration issues, this living analysis gives an overview of these alternatives and guides policy-makers on the directions they can be heading.


Although most migrants still arrive in Europe by air, catastrophic scenes are being played out along several alternative migration routes giving rise to political challenges. The analysis breaks down the different stages and policy challenges along the migration trails.Topic for debate include the possible effects of development and military influences in areas of weak institutional strength where the human smuggling industry is flourishing. Further along the chain, destabilizing effects of refugees are examined as people are flowing into Central, South and East Europe, and finally into parts of North and West of Europe.

About this migration living analysis

This living analysis looks at the irregular migration routes that operate outside the regulatory norms of the sending, transit and receiving countries. An overview of the terminology used in the living analysis can be found by clicking the icon on the left.

Definitions and terminology used

1. The situation: migration to Europe in 2015

Recent migration developments present a challenge to European countries. Europe will probably record more than one million asylum applications in 2015; up to 450,000 are expected to obtain the status of ‘humanitarian migrant’. From January to August 2015, Frontex detected more than 500,000 illegal border crossings to Europe – nearly twice as much as 2014. UNHCR data show an increase in the use of the three routes over the Mediterranean Sea to over 200,000 irregular migrants in October (see Graph 1 by clicking on the icon to the left). Initially, migrants from both Africa and the Middle East mainly used Libya as the country from which to cross the Mediterranean Sea. In early 2015, migrants mainly used both the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes (see Graph 2 – by clicking on the icon to the left), but in October 210,000 of the 218,000 migrants who reached the Mediterranean crossed the border from Turkey to Greece. This influx into Europe is still relatively low compared to the total number of refugees, particularly in the Middle East. Since March 2011, 4.3 million Syrians alone have been registered as refugees, of which approximately 3.5 million are in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Graphs: Arrivals via the Mediterranean routes

Illegal border-crossing to European Union (EU) countries take place mainly via seven routes. An overview can be found below.

Table: EU border crossings

Over the last few months, the most frequently used routes have been the Eastern Mediterranean route and Western Balkan route. Most of the irregular migrants to Europe in 2015 have been of Syrian, Afghan or Eritrean descent. This route involves a move to Turkey first, from where migrants continue to Europe via Greece and the Western Balkan countries. You can find more information on these recent dynamics by clicking the icon to the left.

Most frequent migration routes

2. Structural and temporal drivers of migration

The desire to improve and diversify income is considered the most common driver of migration. But migrants with economic motives mostly stay in their own region (the Middle East or Northern Africa); some move farther as soon as they have the money. Environmentally driven migration, for example as a result of droughts or floods, is also usually a regional phenomenon (a link to the literature study is forthcoming).

A long term problem

The international migration we see today is primarily motivated by conflict and insecurity. People are fleeing from violence and fear of persecution. Going one layer deeper, researchers have identified underdevelopment, limited access to political processes and horizontal inequality (inequality between groups) as the underlying causes of conflict. Syria’s revolution for more democracy during the 2011 Arab Spring and its violent aftermath of governmental oppression illustrates this.

Insecurity and underdevelopment are, thus, the main push factors for people to move elsewhere. Combine this wth the pull factors of freedom and employment opportunities and we see what drives migration. But other factors determine how far people go and what route they take, including social, environmental and infrastructural factors.

Table: Motives for migration

3. What is causing the influx?

But what has changed to cause the influx of 2015? Irregular migrants mainly come from two regions: the Middle East and Northern Africa.

In the case of the Middle East, conflicts in Afghanistan, Palestine and Syria are the main drivers of migration. However, different motives and perceptions come into play in the choice of where to migrate too. Initially, most refugees flee to neighbouring countries: Afghans go to India, Pakistan and Iran, Palestinians go to Lebanon and Jordan, and Syrians go to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. However, in 2015 many Syrians and Afghans are continuing their journey to Europe. Part of the explanation is that refugee camps and informal settlements in neighbouring countries are overcrowded, putting enormous pressure on national budgets and individual savings for housing and education. UNHCR reported in June 2015 that programmes implemented by the UN and NGOs for refugee camps in neighbouring countries faced a current funding gap of a US$3.47 billion. Syrian refugees are missing vital support for basic services. In search of a better future, knowing that the war in Syria will not end soon, many Syrians have decided to continue to Europe along the Balkan route. This is argued by van Kesteren. A link to his article can be found by clicking the icon to the left.

Changing expectations of Syrian refugees

In the case of Africa, the causes of migration to Europe are mixed and less explosive than from the Middle East. On the one hand, conflicts in (South) Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria have led many from these nations to move to other nations. However, migrants using the Central Mediterranean route are also, for example, of Guinean and Algerian descent. So it can be argued that both economic and security motives come into play in the decision to migrate. Another important, though ambiguous, factor is population growth in Africa, which leads many young, well-educated youth to search for opportunities elsewhere. Historically, most African migration takes place within the continent. Migration to Europe generally occurred only between countries with bilateral connections (such as Algeria and France or Ghana and the Netherlands) or in response to an ongoing civil war (e.g. Somalia). For the last two decades Libya has been the main starting point for African refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Between 65,000 and 120,000 Sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb each year, of which 70–90% migrate through Libya and 20–30% through Algeria and Morocco. Please find more insights on the drivers of African migration by clicking the icon to the left.

Migration inside Africa

4. Smuggling economies flourish

Both migrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa depend on smugglers for travel to Europe. Nearly all of the overland international migrants have paid a smuggler. With the influx of migrants to Europe over the two most important routes (Central Mediterranean and Eastern Mediterranean/Western Balkan route), smuggling has become a booming business. Both routes have several similar characteristics, which might explain why these routes have emerged as the most important migration routes. Limited border controls, fragmented policies and corruption make the borders along these routes easy to transit. Organized criminal networks operate along both routes and the smuggling of goods, people and drugs (heroin via the Balkans and cocaine via West-Africa to Europe) has become an increasingly attractive opportunity for unemployed and marginalized communities.

In the case of the Balkans, historically, there has always been smuggling and banditry. The Wilson Centre reports that the smuggling of heroin from the poppy fields of Afghanistan through South Eastern Europe has flourished under mainly Turkish entrepreneurs. The fall of the communist regime led to the demise of strong border defences, the collapse of police forces, and a lack of central authority. A ‘burgeoning underworld’ emerged in which criminal organizations formed strong ties with law enforcement officials. Massive unemployment made the smuggling industry in goods, narcotics and sex appealing. Frontex reports that, after arriving in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, migrants typically make use of an ‘open taxi’ system, which profits significantly from smuggling people to the Serbian border.

Map: Main migration routes in Africa

Similarly, in the Sahel-Sahara, the main trail through Africa, border crossings are often facilitated by existing trade and migration networks that date back to the pre-colonial (and pre-nation state) era. You can read more about this below.

The political economy of migrant smuggling in the Sahel

Porous borders, governance deficits and environmental challenges have undermined the effective control of the Sahel’s frontiers. The response by governments to implementing these provisions has been mixed due to a variety of factors, prominent among them are lack of political will and resources. This has resulted in a gap between policy and implementation, according to the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in a contribution to Sahel Watch. The transnational criminal networks in Libya are now estimated to be worth upwards of US$323 million a year, and are deeply impacting on stability in the region. This illustrates the fact that many people benefit from migration. Alongside more fierce approaches to counter smuggling, economic alternatives should be sought for the people dependent on it for their livelihood. Read more on this in Section 6 ‘Scenarios for Europe’s response’.

Reports: 'Smuggled Futures' and 'Survive and Advance'

5. ‘Fortress Europe’ policy responses

As a response to the influx of irregular migrants, many European governments, Schengen and non-Schengen, have started to reformulate their migration policies, strengthen border controls and even temporarily close their borders. Member states are revising their approach at the national level, reflecting a lack of coherency at the European level. As such, national policies are challenging the fundamentals of the European Union and the cooperation of ‘Fortress Europe’ as a whole. Read more about this below.

United Nations and European Union migration regulations

At the European level, four priority areas can be identified, based on the end statements of the six European Council meetings on migration in 2015. These are the strengthening of border controls, relocation of migrants, cooperation with third countries, and return and readmission of migrants. The strengthening of border controls can be achieved through the strengthening of the EURODAC fingerprint mechanism, the implementation of new technologies and the strengthening of Frontex. The relocation of migrants is now facilitated through ‘hotspots’: reception centres installed by Frontex in Greece and Italy to identify and fingerprint migrants. Cooperation with third countries – specifically cooperation with Turkey and countries in Africa – can be increased to limit migration to Europe by tackling the root causes of migration, as well as for the return and readmission of migrants to Africa and the Middle East.

Turkey as gateway instead of safe stay

Although Europe has intensified its cooperation with third countries, the Valletta Summit in November 2015 exposed the lack of unity among European members states. Moreover, the focus during the meeting was almost exclusively on the voluntary or forced return of migrants to Africa, with many of the concerns and ideas raised by civil society left undiscussed, criticized by van Dillen. Read this critique by clicking the icon to the left.

Prospects of the Valetta Summit

The Valletta ‘European response’ to the migration crisis was a dual effort to promote the return of migrants and prevent them from coming. When putting the recent EU policy developments into a legal-historical perspective, it is clear that existing regulations are at stake. The regulations currently under debate are the EU Dublin Regulation, Schengen Borders Code and UNHCR Geneva Convention. The ‘first country of entry-principle’ of the Dublin Regulation has been challenged by the European Parliament’s allocation key. This resolution proposes a permanent, binding system for distributing asylum seekers among member states, to replace the Dublin Regulation under which responsibility falls on the country of first entry (usually Greece or Italy). Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic have already declared that they will suspend the Dublin Regulation and manage their applications themselves directly.

Border controls in Europe

The future of the Schengen agreement has been called into questioned by the closure of national borders in response to the influx of irregular migrants. Can the Schengen Treaty hold up under these developments? And, if so, what needs to be done to strengthen the borders. President Tusk of the European Council has already warned that effective procedures for registration of migrants are essential for the future of the Schengen Treaty.

Video: Statement on strenghtening European borders

The Geneva Convention is also called into question, not because of its definition of ‘refugee’, but because of the responsibility imposed by the Convention on the country that a refugee flees to. Article 34, for instance, states that nations should facilitate the ‘assimilation’ and ‘naturalization’ of refugees, which has a broader meaning than mere (legal) protection. The question, therefore, remains: What does the Convention mean and can this broader interpretation of a nation’s responsibilities be maintained, particularly as the EU Action Plan on returning irregular migrants contravenes the Convention’s principle of non-refoulement. Moreover, nations such as Turkey can use the limited geographical scope of the initial Convention (the 1951 version only refers to people fleeing as a consequence of ‘events occurring in Europe’) to abstain from taking responsibility for refugees from places such as the Middle East or Africa.

Debates on the meaning and usefulness of the regulations are partly grounded in their vague formulations. The Visa Code, for instance, obliges countries to grant limited territorial validity (LTV) visas based on ‘humanitarian grounds’, although these grounds are not defined in the Visa Code nor in the Schengen Borders Code.

Report: A Migration Crisis? Facts, challenges and possible solutions

6. Scenarios for Europe’s response

The pressure on the Dublin Regulation, Schengen Treaty and Geneva Convention means that Europe needs to revise its vision and strategy. Potential approaches vary from an inward looking strategy, in which each of the member states seeks to save only its own backyard (halting or even reversing the process of European unity), to a more forward looking approach in which members work together to address the migration situation. The experts that have contributed to this analysis point to four possible directions (scenarios) in which European policy might head.

1. Back to the nation state:

In the first scenario, European leaders follow the right-populist electorate: the external and internal borders of Europe are closed and the Schengen Treaty is declared untenable. See, for example, the statement of President Tusk of the European Council below. The recent Western European alliance – Austria, Germany and the Benelux – is already a step in this direction. Under this scenario, countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan would obtain financial support to retake migrants. Please read an analysis of the consequences of this scenario by clicking the icon to the left.

EU's self-threatening border control

2. Selecting at the gate:

A second scenario is to create incentives for economic integration and minimize political integration. In this scenario, member states invest in national transit centres, based on the German example, to enable them to select migrants based on the economic added value of the migrant. Temporary work permits, the so-called ‘Blue Cards’, would be granted to immigrants who can be used in areas where there is a labour shortage. Under this scenario, distrust of European policies dominates, resulting in a mostly national approach to the regulation of migrant flows. Bieckmann, Wijers and Martin point to the potential of circular migration, but also warn for reversive effects in the slide below. Managed circulated migration schemes would require close coordination both between European states, and between Europe and the home (developing) countries.

Circulair migration policies tend to focus on return

3. Integrating European policies:

In the third scenario, Europe improves its internal policy coherence in order to act more coherently as a united front. Under this scenario, the different directorate-generals of the European Commission frequently come together to exchange knowledge and expertise on a broad range of migration issues, from visa policies to job opportunities, as advocated by the Brussels Migration Policy Institute. Besides the Directorate for Migration, Interior and Civil Affairs, which currently addresses migration, there will be a special envoy for migration in the diplomatic service of the EU (the European External Action Service), which will represent the EU in negotiations with non-member states. Under this option, the EU will strengthen its international relations with the Middle Eastern and North African countries (MENA) where there is a lack of migration policies.

This third scenario provides opportunities for international organizations to improve inclusive governance. As argued by Sarah Wolff, international organizations can contribute to inclusive governance of migration by working at multiple levels, share out of the box-insights and promoting a global and transnational approach.

Integrated and cooperative migration policies and partnerships

The EU can also upgrade its external diplomatic relations with its regional partners, including Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in developing border management. You can read more on this by clicking the icon to the left.

The challenges of border security management in the Sahel

4. Towards an international orientation:

The fourth scenario is implementation of an approach that removes the root causes of migration. European leaders set a common strategy that builds on internationally signed UN and EU treaties. An example includes the 2000 Protocol against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea or air, which ‘pays special attention to economically and socially depressed areas, in order to combat the root socio-economic causes of the smuggling of migrants, such as poverty and underdevelopment’ (Article 15(3)). The Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework that European leaders can use for such an approach.

Migration and the SDGs

This aims to improve economic development, access to politics for young people, peace and stability in countries of origin (as advocated for during the Arab Spring) and offers alternative income than smuggling (as advocated by the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Training Centre). Frontex data shows that more than 80% of the adult migrants were men. Under this scenario, youth employment funds are established for African and MENA countries, as well as socioeconomic programmes in Europe to prevent polarization within Europe. Additional funds target the temporarily increase in migration resulting from economic development in the home country (as a higher income initially allows to fulfil an existing desire to migrate).

Directions for European immigration policies

In practice, the solution may lie in a combination of the last two scenarios. The UN and EU treaties show that, on an intergovernmental level, the political will is there to achieve these scenarios. But, in practice, migration challenges are putting so much pressure on EU member states that they are bowing to right-wing populist groups advocating for a short term response that involves putting the iron curtain back in place. These scenarios will be elaborated on during this project as more views of experts are integrated.

Author: Karlijn Muiderman

About the author

Karlijn Muiderman is now Anticipatory climate governance researcher at Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at the Utrecht University.

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