How migration flows are changing

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Migration from the Middle East and Africa to Europe has various drivers, but the conflicts in this part of the world accounts for the greater part of the flows. Eighty-five percent of those who arrived in Europe through the Mediterranean since 1 January are from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. These are among the deadliest conflicts surrounding Europe.

Flows from the region to Europe pass through main two gateways: Turkey and Libya. The Balkan route from Turkey to Germany was initially used almost exclusively by Syrians, but is increasingly being used by Iraqis and Afghans, and by other nationalities that are less clearly identifiable as refugees, such as Pakistanis. This route is by far the most popular today, with more than 100,000 arrivals since the beginning of the year.

The anarchy and violence in Libya have enhanced the country’s role as gateway to Europe for migrants and refugees from two main areas of Africa. The Horn of Africa is one – migrants from this region were traditionally mostly Eritreans fleeing one of the toughest dictatorships in the world, and Somalis fleeing widespread violence and anarchy. The impact of the war in Yemen on flows of Somalis, who used to cross the straits of Aden to seek shelter but now find another war, has yet to be measured.

West Africa is the other main source of the flows through Libya. According to numbers from 1 January, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, and Senegal are the countries of origin for 49 percent of those landing in Italy. This group contains an indistinct mix of refugees, economic migrants and “survival migrants” fleeing widespread violence or environmental degradation. For the latter category, there is generally no obligation under international law to accept them into Europe, yet they often have the same sense of urgency as those fleeing war or persecution. The numbers of Nigerians have been steadily growing, but it is hard to say whether this is part of long-established patterns of economic migration to Europe, or the result of violence and the activities of Islamist terror group Boko Haram.

A significant part of these migration flows from West Africa used to remain within the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), as people made use of the visa-free zone to move to neighbouring countries. Increasingly, however, these flows are redirected towards Europe due to deteriorating security and economic conditions as well as the dynamics of the people-smuggling industry, which has an interest in promoting longer and more dangerous journeys over closed borders.

Overall, demography and economic conditions have had a limited impact on the intense recent flows. The vast majority of those arriving in Europe through the Mediterranean are fleeing conflicts in the Levant and in Afghanistan, passing through Greece and Turkey.

Yet nothing about migration flows is set in stone: their intensity and direction can change dramatically and very fast: just a year ago most Syrians used to go to Europe through Libya, but in a matter of months they changed route and started to travel in much higher numbers through Turkey and Greece.

How migrant flows could change

Several factors could affect the intensity and the directions of these flows. First, Syrian refugees have been a huge component of the current refugee crisis, and we would probably be witnessing a completely different magnitude of crisis without the war. Another escalation of the fighting could make the flow of Syrian refugees even greater. On the other hand, most countries on the Balkan route (starting with Austria and ending with Macedonia) are closing their doors to refugees and migrants, although in most cases Syrians are still allowed to pass through.

The abandonment of Germany’s “refugees welcome” policy would provoke further unpredictable changes to this route: given the worsening situation in Syria, flows are unlikely to stop, but rather would be diverted – either to the Balkans or further afield to North Africa.

The evolving situation in Libya is another factor that could change the intensity and direction of flows. For Syrians, it would be now hard to use this route as most countries neighbouring Libya now require a visa. Yet an escalation of fighting in Libya or a collapse of the national economy could make the environment for smugglers more favourable, while pushing out of Libya the numerous economic migrants from other countries that still live there.

Changes in countries of origins can also have an impact, either increasing or decreasing the drivers of migration – particularly in West Africa. Flows could also be redirected outside Europe, further destabilising some African countries. For instance, the vast majority of those fleeing the war in Libya since 2011 have found refuge either in Tunisia or Egypt.

Policy challenges for Europe

Since the outbreak of the crisis a year ago, Europe has had to maintain a double focus in its response. On the one hand is strengthening the “Interior Ministry” side of policy – enforcing border controls, identifying refugees, and providing papers and accommodation to those in need. On the other hand, the outbreak of the refugee crisis in spring 2015 has pushed this issue in the forefront of EU foreign policy, involving some of the largest member states such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

The coming months will likely see a strengthening of current trends towards the closure of borders, the building of fences or the introduction of caps on the total number of refugees that certain countries will accept. For the moment, EU policy seems to be focusing on implementing what has been agreed in the past months, rather than exploring new solutions.

Along with the issues mentioned above, policymakers less prone to implementing restrictive policies (an ever-shrinking minority) should look at broader questions. These include whether to trade a more efficient agreement with Turkey on readmissions (or forced returns) of those who come illegally to Greece with a plan for the resettlement of refugees from Turkey to European countries. Yet there seems to be little appetite for these kinds of policies.

Finally, on migration from Africa, Europe is supposed to implement its part of the deal reached at the November 2015 Valletta summit: creating a Trust Fund to promote economic development, encouraging voluntary returns to countries of origin, reducing commission on remittances sent by migrants, and launching projects for youth employment and microcredit in source countries.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

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