Europe’s Southern Borders: Where Instability and Anti-Immigration Sentiment Collide

There are more than fifty million refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons around the world[1]. They flee conflict, poverty, and persecution, often with no definite destination. Many of them have dreams of reaching the putatively gold-lined streets of Europe, but the reality of this journey to Europe is much less sparkly.

Michael Gubi, ©2015, some rights reserved.

Michael Gubi, ©2015, some rights reserved.

There are three main routes migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers use to go to Europe. The first path lies in the West, where they travel from Morocco into Spain either over fences or by sea. The second lies in the East, where they depart from Turkey for Bulgaria or Greece. The third route begins in Libya, where ‘boat people’, as they are informally called, board overcrowded and unseaworthy boats with the hope of making land in Italy. Referred to as the ‘Central Mediterranean Route’ by the European Union (EU) border control agency Frontex, this way was the most used and the most dangerous (Figure 1) in 2014.

2014 broke records in a number of areas. In terms of the number of ‘irregular border crossings’, the amount doubled from its post-Arab Spring record to 270,000, according to Frontex. The number of these illegal crossings made via the Mediterranean made up about 90 per cent, at around 200,000 people. In the 28 European Union member states, there were more than 625,000 asylum applications in 2014. The explanation for the rise in European migration lies on the other side of the Mediterranean—toward Africa and the Middle East. Political instability was rife in Nigeria, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea, and countless others. In Eritrea, roughly 4,000 people per month flee the wrath of President Isaias Afwerki’s government, where press freedom is nonexistent and where criticizing the government can lead to arrest and indefinite detention. The Boko Haram insurgency and its economic ramifications have also driven many Nigerians north in search of a better life. The prolonged civil war in Syria has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced nearly every Syrian; Syrian migrants were reportedly more common than those of any other nationality using the central Mediterranean route in 2014.

The journey in search for a better life is a costly one. Not only does this journey to Europe through the Central Mediterranean require paying upwards of £2000 to smugglers, but there is no guarantee of making land on Europe’s shores at all. A reported 150,000 people were rescued from shipwrecks in 2014. At the same time, a reported 3,000 people have drowned, but many more remain unaccounted for.

The Italian coastguard created Mare Nostrum (Latin for ‘Our Sea’) in October 2013 in the wake of a shipwreck that left 350 migrants dead. The search-and-rescue program was credited to have saved more than 100,000 migrants. However, its cost of €9 million a month was an unfair burden for the Italian government to bear in what was a problem for the entirety of the European Union (EU). 1 November 2014 provided a relief to the Italian budget when Operation Triton, administered by Frontex, replaced Mare Nostrum.

Operation Triton was met with some hostility by the international and humanitarian community, however. That is because Operation Triton was to operate on less than one-third the budget of Mare Nostrum. Its purpose is also border control and surveillance in lieu of search-and-rescue, and its charter also dictates that it can only operate within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast, while Mare Nostrum could function in international waters. These are crucial changes; hundreds of lives are at stake on a single boat and these boats often rely on the help of operations like Mare Nostrum and Triton in Libyan or international waters.

By some estimates, more than 600,000 migrants are waiting on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. This number can only grow in 2015, as Libya is in the midst of a regionalist power struggle, with eastern Libya loyal to the military and western Libya dominated by Islamists and militias from western coastal cities. The breakdown of state authority has brought an end to economy activity, an end to basic services and anarchy has begun to run rampant. Not only does this conflict cause more people to seek more stable lives across the Mediterranean, but it also gives the smuggling services the ability to flourish without the fear of retribution. In economic terms, the demand will grow and the supply will grow, meaning that there will be an all-around increase in attempts to reach Europe.

This is occurring at the same time that the Europe Union is experiencing budget tightening and the rise of nationalist political parties preaching the stricter immigration policies. Anti-immigration sentiment is rife across Europe: the United Kingdom, for example, opted out of funding Operation Triton, saying it could be a ‘pull-factor’ for migrants trying to reach Europe. In 2014, the far-right National Front party in France topped polls, promising to drastically cut immigration and reduce the influence of Islam.

Islamophobia and the rise of the Islamic State also played a big role in stoking anti-immigration fires across Europe. Attacks, like the one on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris or the rampage in Denmark, have rocked an usually accepting European society. Despite the vast majority of these immigrants having peaceful, productive intentions, a recent German anti-Islam rally had record attendance. This is surely a self-fulfilling prophecy: if refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants are unwelcome and discriminated against in Europe, many more will turn to crime in lieu of employment and violence instead of adapting to European society.

In order to prevent this ‘perfect storm’ of record numbers of illegal border crossing and anti-immigrant sentiment from turning into a crisis, change must occur on both sides of the Mediterranean. This editor echoes the calls for more safe and legal alternatives for those seeking asylum in Europe, increased European involvement in economic aid and conflict resolution in the areas from which the migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers flee, more emphasis on the human rights implications of migration policy, and louder moderate voices in media and politics in order to tackle the reemergence of racism and xenophobia in Europe.

One move a New York Times article recently suggested is the decriminalization of illegal migration[2]. The Editorial Board argued it would encourage migrants to identify smugglers and their agents, helping law enforcement break up the criminal networks that prey on the most vulnerable groups. On the other hand, the networks of intermediaries, drivers, guides, migrant ‘welcome centers’, and clandestine migration consultants would put the regional economies of places like Agadez under significant stress. Inevitably, when one smuggling network is dismantled, two more will take its place. This could cause even more disorganized migration efforts, resulting in even more deaths in the effort to reach Europe.

Rather, the first step should be toward creating more safe and legal alternatives to smuggling. Competitive opportunities to work or study in Europe would automatically attract the smartest, most driven people. This would be beneficial to European society and give would-be illegal migrants a better opportunity to a better life. In addition, this type of scheme would better integrate migrants into European society. At the moment, large numbers of migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees live together in societies apart from European society, where poverty is rife and where extremism can easily embed itself. While the Right breeds further discrimination of migrants, this would only further disenfranchise them and therefore exacerbate the problem of crime, violence, and extremism.

Another step to reducing irregular migration is to address the root causes of why migrants flee their home countries. Indeed, the problem of migration should become a larger component of EU foreign policy. European states need to take up the roles of conflict mediators and economic facilitators in troubled areas. They also need to ensure the safety and health standards of refugee camps and encourage resettlement schemes once the conflict subsides.

Migration policy reform should also include increased burden-sharing measures. Currently, 90 per cent of all asylum claims are filed within only 10 EU member states. Under the status quo higher concentrations of migrants occupy certain cities and put a strain on their job market and the country’s benefit infrastructure. It also increases the likelihood they will turn to crime. Burden inequality among EU member states creates tension between members of the EU, further exacerbating problems of unity that have plagued the Union for the past half-decade.

The human dimension of migration policy must be stressed in reform measures. We must not forget that migration is about people; every ‘boat person’, as migrants are often called, is an individual. Whether they travel to Europe to work hard, study hard, make a better life for their children, or are a victim of human-traffickers, they deserve a shot at a better life. A comprehensive European Agenda on Migration has to encompass all dimensions of migration. The EU Commissioner on Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, recently echoed these sentiments, saying, “This is not about quick fixes; this is about creating a more secure, prosperous and attractive European Union.”

In short, migration to Europe is a complicated issue. Its causes lie outside of Europe’s borders and, ultimately, are another testament to how interconnected our world is today. A conflict in Syria, for instance, is now everyone’s conflict. For this reason, no longer is isolationism an effective migration policy. Fear and ignorance are no excuse for not responding to a humanitarian crisis on Europe’s doorstep. In order to respect the worth and dignity inherent to every person, EU migration policy must undertake significant reforms.

[1] “Global forced displacement tops 50 million for first time in post-World War II era.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 20 June 2014.

[2] The Editorial Board. “Migrant Deaths on the Mediterranean.” The New York Times. 5 January 2015.