Migrants: the EU needs to redress its policy response

Data provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reveal that about 343,589 migrants entered the European Union (EU) by sea in 2016 (so far, at least), arriving mostly in Greece and Italy. This is happening in the framework of the migration wave challenging the EU since the beginning of the 2010s: an escalation in the number of people trying to get the EU southern shores which is neither usual nor out of the blue.

In the history of the EU, the current migration flows are unprecedented in terms of people involved. They are massive and affect numerous EU countries in various ways. The phenomenon is the result of a mix of driving forces, pushing people to flee their countries to start over in Europe. These factors should be embedded in a broader structure of significant global challenges: violence, poverty, social polarization, climate change, political volatility in the Maghreb and Middle East which has taken other destination options off the table.

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 and the Central Mediterranean route.

The main routes

The Eastern Mediterranean Route is the passage used by migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, or Cyprus. This route became of primary importance in 2015. About 400,000 people crossed from Turkey to Greece 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. On March 18, 2016 the EU and Turkey made a debated deal intended to stop the flow of refugees. The deal allows authorities in Greece to deport people regarded as irregular migrants to Turkey. The agreement came in exchange for $ 6.8 billion in refugee-related aid to Turkey and visa free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe’s Schengen zone. Even though the deal met with significant criticism immediately after its enforcement, due to the kind of legal protections the Turkish system provided to asylum-seekers, it resulted in a drastic reduction of sea arrivals in Greece (Danish Refugee Council, 2016).

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. According to the UNHCR, thousands of people lost their life (4,655 dead or missing just in 2016) trying to reach the southern shore of the EU on smugglers’ boats departing from Libya, Tunisia, or Egypt.

Who’s bearing the brunt of the influx of migrants?

The EU as a whole is affected by an economic stagnation and an increasing polarization. Anyway, the bulk of the migratory flows has chiefly hit countries of the southern Schengen border, which are already affected by a high unemployment rates. Italy is among the most trafficked entry point for migrants. In October 2013, Italy’s government launched Operation Mare Nostrum out of the EU framework, 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 have being gathered in reception centres that were, and continue to be, the target of heavy criticism.

On the whole, people in Europe perceive irregular migrants as a threat to security and welfare, and especially, the media coverage on the situation in Hungary where the Prime Minister, Mr. Orban, raised barbed-wire fence at the border with Serbia in 2015, laid bare the shortcomings of overall migratory policy.

Along with a situation that many observers dubbed as migration crisis, political leaders in the EU have to face one of the deepest sovereign debt crises which brought with it financial instability and high unemployment rates, especially for some member state. As a result, national interests are very high on the political agenda of most European leaders. Although these national economic and social priorities have consistently trumped a common European answer to the refugee crisis, starting in the late 2014 the European Council adopted a would-be comprehensive approach to deal with the causes and effects of the migration flow. The EU managed to launch the Triton Operation, actions to intervene in a number of home countries and of transit. Besides, it has been able to set rules to relocate asylum-seekers hosted in the frontline states. However, this point has been far and foremost elusively accepted, i.e. many EU member states did not comply with the duties they had agreed on for several contingent reasons. Against this background, indeed, 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. The situation has also been exacerbated by the threat of terrorism.

No comprehensive approach in sight

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. As a consequence, the EU leaders’ crisis management turned out to be primarily focused on the protection of the external borders with a growing interest both in coordinating with neighbours and African countries and in ensuring systematic security checks (European Commission, 2015), even at the internal borders.

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.

Hard times 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. Southern EU member states have been left bearing the brunt of the influx, notwithstanding the pledge for a fairer distribution of refugees and asylum seekers. Many governments chose to minimize the effects of the crisis by fencing the borders but that has not discouraged migrants to enter the EU. On the contrary, it has helped xenophobic sentiments grow within the EU member states.

Overall, the influxes have decreased from last year, still the situation in Italy and Greece has not really improved. During the latest meeting in Brussels last week, the EU Home Ministries kept on being at odds over a proposal by the EU’s current chair on reforming the EU asylum system. Indeed, despite agreeing last year to relocate 160,000 people from Italy and Greece, especially eastern European countries have refused to take any in so far.


What emerges from this quite broad analysis regards the inability of the EU and EU member states to develop a comprehensive and straightforward strategic plan to tackle the growing influx of migrants, but most of all the incapacity to enhance common measure to deal with the long term effects of the phenomenon which keeps on being treated as a crisis, a contingency that will be over sooner or later. EU governments should be, and certainly they are, aware of both the territorial closeness of a poor and growing continent to a rich and shrinking one and the resulting long-term nature of the phenomenon. Furthermore, according to figures of the UNHCR refugee agency, of the 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world, 29 percent are hosted in Africa and only 6 percent in Europe.

As the EU cannot unload that burden on a handful of countries without jeopardising the essence of the EU itself, the analysis suggests that European leaders should adopt an inclusive asylum and welfare system capable of combining crisis management and pointing the way forwards towards a multicultural future in the EU countries.




Baczynska G. (2016) “No compromise in sight, EU ministers at odds over immigration”, Reuters, 18th November 2016, retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-eu-idUSKBN13D1AF.

Danish Refugee Council (2016) “Closing Borders, shifting routes: summary of regional migration trends. Middle East”, May, 2016.

European Commission (2015) “European Border and Coast Guard to protect Europe’s External borders”, Press Release, 15th December 2015, retrieved from  http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-6327_en.htm.

UNHCR (2016) Figures at a glance, retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html.