Just the Facts – Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Migrant Crisis 3European Council President Donald Tusk called an extraordinary EU summit which took place from 23 to 24 April where EU leaders discussed Europe’s migrant crisis in the wake of recent tragedies.  In the most recent tragedy, 900 people drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat from Libya.

According to the International Organization for Migration, the Mediterranean Sea is the world’s most dangerous border crossing.  Already, 1,750 migrants have perished in 2015; nearly thirty times as many deaths as in the same period a year ago; 3,279 people died in total last year.  NGOs and others have said that comprehensive EU action in ‘burden sharing’ and formulating a more effective search & rescue operation is required to prevent further loss of life in the near-term.

Cause and effect of irregular migration

The causes of irregular migration are rooted in the forced displacement of people which is facilitated by extensive human trafficking operations.  Its effects are compounded by a heavily criticised EU refugee and asylum policy that disproportionately burdens Southern EU countries.  On top of this, the current search and rescue response has met widespread disapproval for contributing to an increase in migrant fatalities.

The most recent tragedy in the Mediterranean is situated amidst what many consider to be a global crisis of forced displacement. There are more displaced people in 2015 than at any point in history since World War Two.  European migratory patterns have frequently been influenced by regional instability.  In 2011, more than 50,000 migrants landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, fleeing persecution and upheaval in Tunisia and Libya during the Arab Spring.  More recently, the Syrian conflict and the rise of Islamic State have influenced migratory flows.  In 2014, the data suggested that the people crossing the Mediterranean Sea are from refugee-producing countries such as Eritrea, Libya, Somalia and Syria, due to diminishing security in their regions of origin.  Libya’s inability to control its border has led to unchecked human trafficking operations, often in perilous conditions.

The Dublin III regulation which entered into force in July 2013, stipulates that the country that is the first point of entry must handle the asylum application; this leaves countries bordering the Mediterranean, such as Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain overwhelmed by applications.  These countries are also among the most affected by the financial crisis.  The latest Eurostat release shows an increase of 44% (190,875) in the number of asylum applicants registered in the EU in 2014 to 626,065 compared to 435,190 in 2013. The implementation of post-crisis fiscal policies has severely impacted the capacity of Southern European countries to adequately address irregular migration.  Northern European countries such as Sweden have better-funded asylum systems but are harder to reach as a first point-of-entry.  States that bear the brunt of the crisis have called for a suspension of the Dublin Regulation.  Others, such as Germany and the UK are opposed to such a suspension.

Previous EU action has been limited

It is important to note that the 2015 crisis is not unprecedented, similarly high levels of irregular migration to Europe reached crisis-levels in 2006 and 2011.  However, it has frequently been national interests and domestic political concerns that have determined European countries respective responses.  It remains Members States – not the EU – which set migration policy and many states remain cautious about a further transfer of powers to the EU in this policy area.  This may be due to the rise in anti-immigration rhetoric across European domestic politics.  In October 2014, Italy ended their relatively successful Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean.  The EU opted not to fund the continuance of the Italian operation but rather, established the more limited Triton programme, run by the agency Frontex. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has previously referred to this as a “less effective” substitute.

 Outcomes of the Extraordinary Council meeting

At the 23 April emergency Summit on migration, EU leaders agreed to take action in four areas: increasing surveillance at sea, fighting traffickers, cutting migration at the source, and sharing the burden of refugees more equitably.

The main achievement was a tripling of the budget of Operations Triton and Poseidon, naval border-surveillance programmes that operate around the Italian, Maltese and Greek shorelines.  This brings the budget of this programme to a comparable level to the Mare Nostrum operation. However, it remains unclear how long this increased funding will be supplied for and whether Triton’s remit will expand outside coastal Italy, as did Mare Nostrums.  Member states also agreed to contribute additional resources to bolster search and rescue operations.  The UK has pledged to commit the HMS Bulwark, three helicopters and two border patrol ships.  However, they have ruled out taking any refugees into the UK.  Ireland has pledged to commit a naval service vessel pending legal clearance.  Leaders are also moving towards a policy to seize and destroy boats being used for human trafficking.  Although, given current EU-Russia relations, a UNSC resolution for a military mission may be unlikely.  The second major proposal concerns the development of a pilot-programme to resettle migrants coming across the Mediterranean.  This could provide places for migrants in countries other than the country of first-entry.  At the Summit Angela Merkel supported calls for a change to the “Dublin rules”.  These proposals are significant as it would be the first time that the EU would be assigned responsibility for coordinating a migration programme.  However, it should be noted that participation by states remains voluntary and its success will ultimately depend upon the political will of the member states.


The UNHCR has welcomed the increased funding of search and rescue operations; however they also called for a common European asylum system to deal with the crisis of irregular migration.  The European Parliament had voted in favour of establishing a framework for a common European asylum system in June 2013.  However, while states are generally receptive to increased cooperation in humanitarian operations, they are less willing to transfer competencies to the EU regarding the rights of asylum seekers and migrants and this could ultimately determine the long-term success or failure of the EU’s response to this crisis.


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