Since the late 1990s, there have been efforts by the European Union to create common policies in order to regulate migration and to provide effective external border surveillance. However, every year more people try to reach European soil for a number of reasons, such as fleeing armed conflicts, human rights abuses, starvation, and economic conditions. While some of them have the opportunity to use legal channels, the majority do not have this chance and must put their lives into danger to reach Europe.
European Union states came to an agreement in October 1997, which came into force in May 1999 with the Treaty of Amsterdam, that they would more closely co-operate on migration, asylum, and visa issues. However, it was not before the early 2000s, when the mass irregular movement of people from Libya to Italy became more manifest, that the subject of migration became a major topic on the policy agendas of EU states. However, up until the Syrian Civil War the main concern was not the actual numbers of migrants irregularly traveling by boat to Europe. Until recently only about 10% of irregular migrants entered the EU by sea, whereas the rest would use regular means of transport, such as air travel using forged documents, cars, buses, trains, etc. This has changed since 2015, when more than one million people crossed using irregular means from Turkey to Greece. What has drawn the attention of the media is the spectacle of ‘boat people’ drowning in their hundreds in their efforts to reach Southern European states, while EU policymakers have been mainly concerned with how to secure their borders against this open transgression of nation-state sovereignty. It is estimated that 33,000 people have lost their lives in their efforts to reach Europe since 2000.
Despite news of boat migrants mostly concerning those between Greece–Turkey, and Italy–Libya in recent years, there are additional migratory routes into Europe which have been used by irregular migrants for years. However, the popularity of these paths change from time by time for different reasons. The purpose of this paper is to analyse to what extent EU migration and border policies affect irregular migrants in terms of changing their routes into EU countries.
The migrant routes to Europe that so far have been identified by Frontex and other actors are:
Migration flows and the shifting of the routes that migrants use are undeniably dependent on a number of external factors such as wars on the European periphery and the modi operandi of smuggling networks. However, in this article we argue that migration flows change their routes primarily in relation to the policies implemented by the EU. This changing of routes finally pushes migrants to use the harder-to-regulate Central Mediterranean Route, where the number of deaths is higher, partly due to geographical conditions but also due to the unwillingness of Frontex to conduct search and rescue operations. At the same time, human smuggling networks have created new routes to Europe that entail higher risks for refugees and migrants. Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri, in an interview given to Der Spiegel in June 2016, said that “Egypt is becoming the new hotspot for human smugglers. The route is extremely dangerous, the journey often takes longer than ten days.”
In particular, we show how the Western Mediterranean route has remained stable in terms of number of crossings but that groups which have traditionally used this route to cross into the EU, such as West Africans, have shifted toward the Central Mediterranean Route. This happened after Spain made a number of bilateral agreements with third countries and also established stronger border controls in co-operation with Frontex joint forces. These stronger controls are used as a deterrent and have entailed a number of human rights abuses by the Spanish and Frontex, which have resulted in numerous deaths and illegal push-backs into Morocco without taking the non-refoulement principle, the 1951 Refugee Convention, or the human rights of migrants into account.
However, in the 2000s the Central Mediterranean Route began being used more often than the Western Mediterranean Route, and migrants who would have traditionally used the latter started to depart from the coast of Libya. The policies that have demotivated migrants from using the Western Mediterranean Route are to a large degree responsible for thousands of drowned African migrants. The Italian state’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation, which brought over 150 migrants to safety in one year proved to be too costly and was replaced with a much smaller one by Frontex. Furthermore, Frontex refuses to launch search and to rescue operations and instead focuses on border controls. This reluctance of this EU agency to protect vulnerable migrants at sea is continuing to lead to higher-fatality shipwrecks that draw public attention.
Since 2014 we have seen a sharp increase in migrants using the Eastern Mediterranean Route as their entry point into the EU. The record year of 2015, where more than a million migrants crossed into the EU, is the result of a number of factors. The boat trip from Turkey to Greece is much safer than between Libya and Italy and the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, but also the refusal of Frontex to safely transfer migrants to the Italian coast are all determinants that have contributed to almost one million people coming to the EU through Turkey. The reaction of EU states has been to increase sea border controls with Frontex’s ‘Poseidon Rapid Intervention’ operation parallel with the militarization of the border and the patrolling of NATO vessels. However, these interventions were not enough to deter migrants from crossing and at the start of 2016 we saw the number of migrant crossings increasing sharply from 2015. Then EU states attempted to put a stop to this route with the co-operation of Turkey through the EU-Turkey agreement and that adoption of the hot-spot approach. These efforts to deactivate the Eastern Mediterranean route have been to a large degree successful. Over the course of 2016 we saw a sharp decrease in crossings from Turkey to Greece, but we observed an increase in crossings via the Central Mediterranean route. This shifting of these routes due to high demand for migration resulted in 2016 becoming the deadliest year for migrants ever recorded, with the death toll of migrants at sea reaching 5,079 people. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees intercepted while crossing to Greece following the agreement were put into closed camps called ‘hot-spots’, and although they were allowed to apply for the EU relocation program, they have become disenchanted at the slow pace of relocation. Additionally, other nationalities are being illegally pushed back to Turkey, with asylum applications being fast-track rejected or migrants even being denied the right to apply for asylum. Due to the fast-track nature of the process, the possibility of harm in the case of return to Turkey is not being properly investigated. Finally, the monitoring of human rights abuses has been lacking after the departure of many large INGOs and NGOs in protest at the implementation of the hot-spots approach.
After the EU-Turkey agreement, the disincentivizing of the Eastern Mediterranean Route through the effectively closing the Greece’s northern borders, and after the domino effect caused by the closing of the Slovenian and Croatian borders, the numbers of crossings has fallen drastically. At the same time, more than 60,000 Syrian refugees and migrants of different nationalities have become trapped in Greece against their will, unable to reach their destination countries Since the EU asylum relocation program functions very slowly and is not accessible to anyone but Syrians, the Western Balkan Route has been reactivated. Refugees and migrants are crossing into their destinations in northern Europe with the use of smuggling networks, which leaves them vulnerable to physical violence, trafficking, exploitation, and in some cases death.
After the closing of the Greek sea border and the accompanying human rights abuses, refugees and migrants are increasingly again using the Central Mediterranean Route, which has proved to be the deadliest of all. Migrants, as has been shown by recent events, are once again drowning in their hundreds in their efforts to find a better future in Europe. After many decades of experience with irregular migration, it has become clear that the efforts of the EU cannot stop migrant flows towards Europe: they only force them to choose more dangerous pathways each time, hence causing more deaths. It is therefore the responsibility of policymakers to make these crossings safe in respect to human rights conventions ratified by all EU states. Not to do so it is against the values of the EU and creates the image of a union whose theory and praxis are incompatible, resulting in a major blow to its international prestige. Therefore, we end this research paper by providing some policy recommendations for EU policymakers on how to move towards a more concrete and better organised migration and refugee policy.
On September 2, 2015, the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy was found on the shores of Bodrum. The shocking images of the young boy lying face-down on the beach were quickly distributed by media all around the world and brought the public’s attention to the drama of refugees and migrants trying to cross with the assistance of smuggling networks into the European Union (EU). The pictures of the dead child on the coast of one of Turkey’s most popular holiday resorts prompted the public’s sympathy but also outrage due to the supposed lack of a common European migration and refugee policy. French President François Hollande responded to this outcry by saying that Europe needs “a common refugee policy on migration that is fair and humane”. But were not there actions towards a common refugee policy all along? Or is this an admittance by President Hollande that the already existing framework is not fair and humane, leading to thousands of dead migrants every year in the Mediterranean Sea?
In the early 1990s, Europe saw a shift in its migration patterns due to the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the Afghan War and the Gulf War. In order to map these maritime and overland flows around the periphery of Europe, migration scholars and policymakers coined the term ‘new migration’. What was new about this migration was the ‘new geography’ of migration to Europe, in which the system that was until that time dominant—that of mobility between European countries and former colonies or ‘guest worker’ sending countries—changed with significant East-West migration. Up until that time each EU member state had responded individually to this migration crisis. It was not until the late 1990s that the EU began creating common policies in order to regulate migration and to provide effective external border surveillance. However, every year more people try to reach European soil for many reasons, such as fleeing armed conflict, human rights abuses, starvation, and economic conditions. While some of them have the opportunity to use legal channels, the majority do not have this chance and put their lives into danger in order to access Europe. Today, one of the most important characteristics of migration towards Europe is the mixed flows of asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants, etc. Regardless of their purpose, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) has adopted the term migrant to refer any person who is on the move. In line with this, in this research paper, the term migrant is used for all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum.
Despite news about boat migrants mostly concerning Greece–Turkey and Italy–Libya migrants in recent years, there are additional migratory routes for Europe which have been used by irregular migrants for years. However, the popularity of these paths change from time by time depending on different reasons. The purpose of this paper is to analyse to what extent EU migration and border policies affect irregular migrants in terms of changing their routes to reach EU countries. For this reason, after giving some basic information about the profiles of migrants and the characteristics of their migratory routes in the next section, this paper goes on to discuss the balance between state sovereignty for border control and the international protection of migrants. In this section, we present the essential principles of international law that all EU countries have to take into consideration in the preparation and implementation of their policies towards migrants. Following these two introductory sections, in the third part, we examine the relationship between migrant routes and the EU responses to irregular migration, which forms the heart of this research. At the end of this article, in place of a conclusion, we provide an analysis based on all aforementioned descriptive information, as well as policy recommendations intended for EU countries.
European Union states came to an agreement in October 1997, which came into force in May 1999 with the Treaty of Amsterdam, that they would more closely co-operate on migration, asylum, and visa issues. However, it was not before the early 2000s, when the mass irregular movement of people from Libya to Italy became more manifest, that the subject of migration became a major topic on the policy agendas of EU states. However, up until the Syrian Civil War the main concern was not the actual numbers of migrants irregularly traveling by boat to Europe. Until recently only about 10% of irregular migrants entered the EU by sea, whereas the rest would use regular means of transport, such as air travel using forged documents, cars, buses, trains, etc.  This has changed since 2015, when more than one million people crossed using irregular means from Turkey to Greece. What has drawn the attention of the media is the spectacle of ‘boat people’ drowning in their hundreds in their efforts to reach Southern European states, while EU policymakers have been mainly concerned with how to secure their borders against this open transgression of nation-state sovereignty. It is estimated that 33,000 people have lost their lives in their efforts to reach Europe since 2000.
The migrant routes to Europe that so far have been identified by Frontex and other actors are:
Evolution of the EU Common Asylum Policy
Since 1999, EU asylum and migration policy has been evolving towards a Common European Asylum System (CEAS). On the one hand, being a turning point on migration policy, the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) has brought some competences to the EU and to individual member states for immigration and asylum. It has been followed by the Tampere milestones (1999–2004), the Hague Program (2004–2009) and the Stockholm Program (2009–2014). Thus, three major headings concerning the migration policy are determined by the Tampere milestones: (1) The management of migration flows; (2) The fair treatment of third country nationals; and (3) The partnership with countries of origin. In the frame of CEAS, the Dublin System, which is formed of the Dublin Convention (1990), Dublin II Regulation (2003) and Dublin III Regulation (2013) has been called a milestone for the determination of the asylum applications.
Meanwhile there have been other efforts by individual nation-states to tackle mass irregular migration to the EU. Such efforts include bilateral agreements and military border control operations between states such as Italy and Libya, Spain and Morocco, and Greece and Turkey. On the other hand, the Treaty of Lisbon (2010) established the basic principles for common asylum and migration policies (Article 67) with the aim of reinforcing fundamental rights within the EU Framework. However, operational actions at the EU level and the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of Member States of the European Union (Frontex) created through Council Regulation No. 2007/2004 of October 26, 2004, which is considered to be responsible for the security-related aspects of migration policy, criticized for lacking human rights monitoring mechanisms and not mentioning the principle of non-refoulement. This agency, which became operational a year later, came to supplement national border security control efforts by coordinating border management operations. Besides EU states, other Schengen countries also participate, including Iceland and Norway. Frontex is currently one of the most highly funded EU agencies, with a yearly budget of €142 million.
The largest currently ongoing Frontex operations are:
State Sovereignty And International Protection
The general principle in international law is that the State has the authority to grant entry to its territory to non-nationals. Although exercising border control is under the sovereignty of States, this sovereignty is limited by human rights obligations. In this context, on the one hand the EU tries to establish a common asylum policy and law in order to manage migrant flows, on the other hand it is tied by international law and standards to respect the human rights of all migrants.
The IOM defines a migrant as “any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of (1) the person’s legal status; (2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; (3) what the causes for the movement are; or (4) what the length of the stay is”. Despite of the use of the generic term “migrant” in many documents, there are important distinctions between the concepts in the legal framework. The first distinction is made between regular and irregular migrants based on whether the migration takes place in or outside of the regulatory norms of the origin, transit and destination countries. Furthermore, today, the majority of the migration movements into the EU form mixed flows which include refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, and other migrants needing protection such as the victims of trafficking and unaccompanied minors. Each migration status requires different regulations and legal protections; however, this classification is not always easy to do. Moreover, depending on the conditions, the status of a migrant is changeable. This is the reason why the States should respect the fundamental rights of all migrants regardless of their status.
Concerning international law, both international refugee law and international human rights law impose positive and negative obligations to the States concerned. In this context, the non-refoulement principle has emerged as a jus cogens which prohibits the return of an individual to a country in which s/he may be under the risk of persecution. Furthermore, the international law of the sea includes important regulations and responsibilities for States regarding the rescue of boat migrants. In addition to all these international systems, the EU is also bound by the regional human rights protection system. From this perspective, the EU’s migration policy should not only be carried out in accordance with international human rights law but also the regional treaties and jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.
The Principle of Non-Refoulement
The non-refoulement principle first emerged at an international level in international refugee law. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol are the main instruments which codify the rights of the refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which has been signed and ratified by all EU Member states, is not only important for determining refugee status but also for enshrining the non-refoulement principle (Art. 33) which UNHCR recently announced as non-derogable and customary. According to Article 33:
“1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
2. The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.”
Even though the 1951 Refugee Convention limits the implementation of this principle to refugees, over time this principle came to be considered as a central doctrine and jus cogens in international human rights law as well as taking place in core treaties such as the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). As a principle, it constitutes an impediment for States collectively expelling aliens. Additionally, the International Convention on Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990) grants explicit protection for irregular migrants. However, interestingly, none of the EU Member states has yet signed or ratified this convention.
The non-refoulement principle is not only applied at the international level but also the regional level. While the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) does not mention the principle of non-refoulement explicitly, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has charged member states with enforcing it ever since the landmark case of Soering. Moreover, the Court also highlights the violation of human rights in cases of the collective expulsion of aliens. On the other hand, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights explicitly gives place to the principle of non-refoulement and prohibits collective expulsion in Article 19.
In accordance with the principle of non-refoulement, all individuals have the right to seek international protection (refugee status or subsidiary protection) based on the fear of persecution, discrimination, aggression, conflict, threats to the right to life, etc. According to the UNHCR, “asylum seekers are individuals who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined”. Asylum seekers in these terms form the largest group among migrants to the EU. After the completion of their application, they may become refugees or economic migrants. Even though some of them do not fulfil the criteria for the status, they may hold subsidiary protection from the host country in case there is a risk they will be persecuted in their country of origin. Subsidiary protection is regulated under EU law. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights regulates the right to asylum under Article 18, which is based on the 1951 Refugee Convention. According to customary law, the 1951 Refugee Convention and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, seeking asylum and receiving asylum are individual rights.
The International Law of the Sea
Alongside international refugee and human rights law, the international law of the sea is also binding for EU countries during sea operations. While the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) determines the rights and the responsibilities of States over the high seas, there are three other treaties which define the duties of the States for providing assistance at sea: the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention), the 1974 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and the 1989 International Convention on Salvage.
According to the article 2 of the UNCLOS, territorial waters are part of the territory of a State, so in the case that migrants on a boat enter the territorial waters of an ECHR member state, they ought to be granted all the rights given by the ECHR. Moreover, in the event the migrants are taken onto a vessel belonging to the national authorities of an ECHR state, even though they are on the High Seas, the vessel is under jurisdiction of the flag state (Article 92 of the UNCLOS). This is the reason why migrants taken on board these vessel are under the responsibility of the flag state. However, if a vessel belonging to an ECHR member state accompanies a boat belonging to migrants to the state of departure, they are not considered under the effective control of the ECHR member state.
Concerning rescue at the sea, all the relevant treaties—the SAR Convention, SOLAS and the International Convention on Salvage—oblige State Parties to provide assistance to any person in distress at the sea. Furthermore, they should cooperate and coordinate to ensure the necessary process is undertaken for the rescue.
Migrant Routes And Eu Responses
In this section, we look into the three main routes used by migrants in order to cross into Europe: the Western, the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes. While these routes remain the most important channels for irregular migrants to access Europe, we observe changes in the frequency in which they are used. With the aim of identifying the reasons for these shifts in the use of these routes, we examine the general profile and numbers of migrants, the bilateral agreements and EU agreements with third countries, and Frontex operations. Furthermore, not only EU policies but also the Syrian refugee crisis has had significant influence on creating a new route, the so-called Western Balkan Route. From this point of view, at the end of this section, we also elaborate on this new route in the context of changing routes.
Figure 1: Map of migrant routes in Mediterranean
Western Mediterranean Route
Starting from the migrant route between Morocco and Europe (in particular Spain and France), it should be highlighted that there has been a long history of migration here because of the colonial past, geography, and economic and political conditions. Moreover, it is important to note that this has always been reciprocal mobility. After Spain entered the EU in 1986 and made changes towards a common EU migration policy in the 1990s with the establishment of the Schengen system, irregular migration flows from Morocco to Spain began increasing.
One of the most common routes for the irregular migration of Maghrebis and Western Africans to Europe is the Western Mediterranean route, which signifies the flow of people from Algeria and Morocco to Spain. Thus, the Spain-Morocco border has become problematic for the EU in terms of border surveillance. However, in 2015, due to the Syrian Civil War, Syrians accounted for the largest share of detections across this route out of a total of 7,164 recorded crossings. Sub-Saharan African migrants use two different routes to reach Algeria or Morocco, either through the Sahara desert or along the West African coast. The latter is preferred due to the high risks entailed in crossing the Sahara. Since 2008, there have been an average of 6,850 crossings per year, with 2011 seeing the highest number, with 8,450 crossings, and 2010 having the lowest number with 5,000.
In order to regulate irregular migration, a cooperative relationship between Spain and Morocco has been evolving since the beginning of the 1990s. First of all, the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation was signed in 1991. Following this treaty, a bilateral readmission agreement was accepted by Spain and Morocco in 1992. With the establishment of the Frontex-led European Border Surveillance System EUROSUR, Moroccans together with Mauritanians, Senegalese, citizens of Cape Verde and recently Syrians have practically been blocked from crossing the border to Spain. Frontex has been conducting joint forces operations in the Western Mediterranean Route under the names ‘Hera’, ‘European Patrol Networks’, ‘Indalo’ and ‘Minerva’. These operations are led by Spain in cooperation with other EU member-states and Schengen members who have been giving their support in forms of ships and other assets. These operations have been taking place for ten years and in 2014, 4,114 migrants were intercepted. In the following year 3,817 irregular migrants were intercepted. These operations are also used for drugs interceptions.
According to the Frontex Risk Analysis Report for 2016 after more effective border enforcement measures in Morocco and Spain for sub-Saharan African migrants, who have traditionally chosen this route for their migration to Europe, they are now increasingly using the Central Mediterranean route instead. These border enforcement tactics have reportedly included a number of human rights violations, such as extreme use of police violence by Morocco and Spain and even reports of Spanish police shooting at migrants trying to cross into Spanish territory. Although the push-back operations have been heavily criticised by Amnesty International because of these violations of human rights, it has been taken as an example by the other EU member states due to the “effective and productive” border control between Spain and Morocco. On the same wavelength, a spokesperson of Germany’s interior ministry told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag on November 6, 2016 that Germany wants migrants stopped at sea and returned back to North Africa, from where they can apply for asylum.
Central Mediterranean Route
One of the most commonly used routes to Europe is this one, which starts in Egypt or more commonly Libya and ends in Malta or more often Italy. It is the route favored by Africans, mostly sub-Saharan, but in recent years it has also been used by Syrians escaping the country’s civil war. During 2008–10 it was less commonly used than the Eastern Mediterranean route, but this changed after the Arab Spring in 2011. In 2012 it became the second most popular by a small margin, only to witness a surge in 2013-14 due to the civil conflicts in Eritrea and Syria. 2014 was a record year, with 170,660 crossings, and in 2015, 153,946 crossings. Due to the long distance between departure points and destination, this route is also the most dangerous, with 3,200 dead and missing in 2014 and 2,900 in 2015. On November 3, 2016, 240 migrants drowned when two boats bound for Italy capsized in a year in which the death toll of migrants trying to cross into Europe reached a new record.
Efforts to tackle irregular migration from Libya started only a couple of years after the activation of this route. However, there were no concrete steps taken by the Joint EU–Libya Action Plan in 2006. Between 2006 and 2010, there were a number of protocols between Italy and Libya in order to “combat illegal migration” at the sea. While these agreements were suspended during the beginning of the conflict in Libya, a memorandum was later signed between Italy and the Libyan National Transitional Council to confirm their cooperation on migration. Furthermore, in 2012, another agreement took place but was not released publicly. The main criticism of this cooperation is based on human rights violations and the principle of non-refoulement. Firstly, Libya is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which means that Libya does not have a legal system for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. Moreover, according to the reports prepared by European Commission and Amnesty International, there are serious risks of ill-treatment and refoulement of refugees in Libya. EU states have tried individually or co-operatively to intercept irregular migration through policy-making and border control management. The most relevant operations to strengthen the EU’s capacity to control its borders have been the following:
Operation Mare Nostrum was a naval and air operation launched by the Italian state in October 2013 after the deaths of 366 migrants off the coast of Lampedusa and executed by the Italian armed forces along with the Italian police and Italian Red Cross. The aim of the operation was to tackle irregular migration in the Central Mediterranean route. Therefore, the mission of Mare Nostrum was twofold:
The operation lasted for a year and was mainly a search and rescue operation with ships operating close to the Libyan coast. It resulted in more than 150,000 migrants safely landing in Italian territory. However, this operation proved very costly for the Italian state, which spent €9 million month on carrying it out. For this reason the Italian state applied for additional funds, but EU states did not offer the requested support. As a result, the operation ended on October 31, 2014. However, EU states have since launched coordinated efforts to block these irregular migration flows.
Frontex’s border security operation Triton began on November 1, 2014. Even though it was not intended to replace Mare Nostrum, it essentially did. It is a more limited operation with fewer assets and a smaller budget. The monthly budget is three times smaller than that of Mare Nostrum, and is estimated at €2,9 million per month. The operational area is reduced and focuses on the protection of Italy’s sea borders. This development came after criticism from Frontex’s executive director Gil Arias in September 2014 that the search and rescue objectives of Mare Nostrum increased the numbers of traffickers and functioned as an unintentional “pull factor” for migrants. For the same reason, the UK did not participate in the Triton operation. In April 2015 after a public outcry that followed the deaths of 800 migrants in one weekend, an emergency EU summit on the immigration crisis was called. During this summit the head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, dismissed the idea of turning Triton into a search and rescue mission, since this would “encourage desperate migrants to risk the passage”. Moreover, he added that in this way Frontex would “fuel and support the business of traffickers”. As a result of this change of dogma, prioritizing tackling smuggling networks over saving lives, migrant deaths at sea in April 2015 were 30 times higher than the same period the year before. In 2016, after the deactivation of the Eastern Mediterranean route with the EU-Turkey agreement, there was a resurge of interest in this route, with 181,436 crossings in total. Unfortunately, this led to more than 5,000 deaths in 2016. As we will show later, this increase is correlated with the signing of the EU-Turkey Agreement.
Eastern Mediterranean Route
Generally, the Eastern Mediterranean Route has been the most commonly used pathway for irregular migration to the EU. However, in 2015 we witnessed an unprecedented situation. From 50,830 crossings in 2014, this route became by far the main one used by the approximately 1 million people who entered in the EU in 2015. During that year, in what has been referred to as the migration or refugee crisis, more than 885,000 crossings were detected from Turkey to the Greek islands of the eastern Aegean: a 17-fold increase from the year before. Since the completion of a fenced barrier in the main crossing on the Greek-Turkish land border on December 2012 and increased surveillance on both sides of the border, the vast majority of those crossings were made by sea. Of these crossings, 85 percent came from conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Due to the close proximity of the Turkish coast and the islands of the eastern Aegean, this route has not been as fatal as the Central Mediterranean Route; however, in 2015, 806 people lost their lives in their effort to go to Europe.
Despite the fact that the recent readmission agreement with Turkey has become a hot topic in EU–Turkey relations, the background of this readmission agreement is based on the bilateral protocol signed between Turkey and Greece in 2002. Those not eligible for international protection could return to Turkey if Turkey was the departure country. On March 8, 2016, this protocol was revised and become the EU–Turkey Readmission Agreement, allowing Greece to send irregular migrants back to Turkey immediately.
In accordance with these agreements, since 2006 Frontex has been carrying out border patrol operations on the Greek-Turkish and Bulgarian land borders under the name Operation Poseidon Land, and since 2007 in the sea border between Greece and Turkey under the name Operation Poseidon Sea. Between 2011 and 2013, Frontex spent €47 million on these two operations. Amnesty International has repeatedly asked for the suspension of parts of the Poseidon operation due to persistent reports of human rights violations and illegal push-backs without consideration of the non-refoulment principle. After the agreement with Frontex to control the maritime borders between Greece and Turkey, the Greek government decided to build a fence on the most commonly used land path between the two countries. This path was on the only part of the Greek-Turkish border not separated by the Evros rivers, where 32,500 migrants were intercepted in 2010. It was reportedly the safest place for passage between the two countries. The fence was completed in 2012 and pushed migrants to use the much deadlier sea route.
In 2015, due to the unprecedented migrant flows across the sea borders from Greece to Turkey, Greece requested additional assistance for its external borders in the Aegean. The new operation, which is called “Poseidon Rapid Intervention”, provides Greece with additional assistance to strengthen border surveillance, registration, and identification capacity. While participation in Frontex joint operations is voluntary, all member states are obliged to respond when a rapid intervention is called unless they face an exceptional situation on their external borders. Finally, in February 2016 NATO Defence Ministers agreed to deploy a maritime force in the Aegean sea in support of Greek, Turkish, and Frontex forces in the monitoring and surveillance of migrant crossings.
After the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement to return new arrivals to Turkey in March 2016 and the closing of the Greek-Macedonian border the same month, migrant flows were reduced significantly, to an average of approximately just 1,900 people each month. Instead we witnessed an increase in crossings on the Central Mediterranean route.
In the first three months of 2016 more than 170,000 people reached the coasts of the EU, the vast majority of them using the Eastern Mediterranean Route. This signified a seven-fold increase compared to the first three months of the record year 2015. Consequently, EU states had to work towards a solution which would decrease incentives for migrants wanting to cross over to the other side of the Aegean in order to avoid an extension of the crisis. In order to enact this, along with the externalization of the border which resulted from the EU–Turkey agreement, EU states decided upon the creation of closed camps called “hot-spots” with five main functions:
These tasks were to be executed by a joint force of three EU agencies—Frontex, Interpol and European Asylum Support Office (EASO) officers—in coordination with the local authorities. In this sense, these camps simultaneously function as reception and removal centres. The hot-spot approach had initially been used in Italy, where there are currently six such camps functioning. In Greece there are currently five ‘hot-spots’ located on border islands and coordinated by the EU Regional task force headquarters in Piraeus.
The purpose of the ‘hot-spots’ is to make a fast-track separation between those nationals that are eligible for international protection and are allowed to access asylum services and/or the asylum relocation program and those who will be deported back to Turkey. As a consequence of this practice, the individual right to seek and receive asylum is regularly violated.
Furthermore, the EU–Turkey readmission agreement and the ‘hot-spot’ approach have drawn reactions from NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Amnesty International, as well as UNHCR. While collective expulsion constitutes the main criticism, the geographical limitation applied by Turkey is the other important discussion topic in terms of the protection of refugee rights. On the other hand, the violation of human rights in the ‘hot-spots’ have been heavily criticised by all actors working in the refugee aid sector; some, such as MSF and UNHCR, have ended their activities in Lesbos.
EU Asylum Relocation Program
To relieve the pressure from Italy and Greece, which have been the frontline EU countries for the unprecedented 2015 flows, the European Commission presented a plan for the relocation of asylum applicants to other EU countries. In May 2015 it presented a draft Council Decision for the relocation of 40,000 asylum seekers. Another draft was presented in September 2015 proposing the number to be relocated from Italy and Greece to be 106,000 applicants plus another 54,000 from an unspecified country, presumably Hungary, raising the total number to 160,000. These two drafts were based on Article 78(3) of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union, which, after consultation with the European Parliament, allows for provisional measures to be taken for the benefit of “member states confronted with an emergency situation characterised by the sudden inflow of third country nationals”. These decisions were adopted on September 14 and 22, 2015, respectively. The EU asylum relocation program is to be accessed only by those nationalities that have an asylum acceptance rate of over 75% in EU countries, at the time including Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans. Currently it is accessible only to Syrian nationals. Nevertheless, since November 2015 and the relocation of 30 Syrians and Iraqis to Luxemburg and as of July 2016 3,056 individuals from Greece and Italy in total have been relocated. This heightens the uncertainty and despair of people living in camps whose conditions are not suitable for dignified living for prolonged periods. This has increased mobility across the Western Balkan Route where migrants use the assistance of smuggling networks in order to get to northern Europe and apply for asylum there.
Western Balkan Route
Throughout 2015, the majority of those who crossed to Greece from Turkey used an informal but state-regulated corridor which allowed migrants to move freely to their destinations in northern Europe to ask for asylum or live as irregular migrants. Thereafter, more than 885,000 people used this route. After the closing of the Balkan corridor in March 2016, and the domino effect caused by the closing of the borders by Slovenia and Croatia, we have witnessed the reactivation of smuggling networks assisting migrants to move to Northern Europe. Currently there are approximately 60,000 Syrians that have been trapped in Greece and are expected to apply for access to the Asylum Relocation Program managed by the EU, but have become disenchanted by the slow pace of the relocations. For this reason, they have decided to move with the assistance of smugglers along with other nationalities, such as Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Moroccans etc. who have not been allowed to access this EU program on the grounds of their nationality.
Figure 2: Detected Irregular Mediterranean Border Crossings by Route between 2008 and 2015
Analysis & Recommendations
Migration flows and the shifting of the routes that migrants use are undeniably dependent on a number of external factors such as wars in the European periphery and the modi operandi of smuggling networks. However, we argue in this article that these migration flows are changing their routes primarily in relation to policies implemented by the EU. This changing of routes eventually pushes migrants to choose the harder-to-regulate Central Mediterranean Route, where the number of fatalities is higher, partly due to geographical conditions but also due to the unwillingness of Frontex to conduct search and rescue operations here. At the same time, human smuggling networks have created new routes to Europe that entail higher risks for refugees and migrants. Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri, in an interview with Der Spiegel in June 2016, said that “Egypt is becoming the new hotspot for human smugglers. The route is extremely dangerous, the journey often takes longer than ten days”.
In particular, we have shown how the Western Mediterranean route has remained stable in numbers of crossings, but groups that have traditionally used this route to cross into the EU, such as West Africans, have shifted toward the Central Mediterranean Route. This happened after Spain made a number of bilateral agreements with third countries but also established stronger border controls in co-operation with Frontex joint forces. These stronger controls are used for their deterrent power and have entailed a number of human rights abuses by Spanish and Frontex, which have resulted into numerous deaths and illegal push-backs to Morocco, without taking into consideration the non-refoulement principle, the 1951 Refugee Convention, or the human rights of migrants.
However, as we mentioned above, in the 2000s the Central Mediterranean Route began to be used more often than the Western Mediterranean Route, and migrants who would traditionally have preferred the latter began to depart from the coast of Libya. The policies that have disincentivised migrants from using the Western Mediterranean Route are to a large degree responsible for thousands of drowned migrants. The Italian state’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation, which brought more than a hundred and fifty thousand migrants to safety in one year proved to be too costly and was replaced with a much smaller one by Frontex. Furthermore this EU agency refuses to launch search and rescue operations and instead focuses solely on border controls. This reluctance of this EU agency to protect vulnerable migrants at sea is continuing to lead to higher-fatality shipwrecks that draw public attention.
Since 2014 we have seen a sharp increase in the migrants that use the Eastern Mediterranean Route as their entry point to the EU. The record year of 2015, in which more than a million migrants crossed into the EU, was the result of a number of factors. That the boat-trip from Turkey to Greece is much safer than between Libya and Italy and both the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, but also the refusal of Frontex to safely transfer migrants to the Italian coast are all determinants that have contributed to almost one million people coming to the EU through Turkey. The reaction of EU states has been to increase sea border controls with Frontex’s ‘Poseidon Rapid Intervention’ operation, parallel with the militarization of the border with the use of NATO vessels to patrol the sea. However, these interventions have not been sufficient to deter migrants from crossing, and at the beginning of 2016 we saw the number of migrant crossings increasing sharply in relation to those of 2015. At that time, EU states have tried to put a stop to this route with the co-operation of Turkey through the EU–Turkey agreement and the adoption of the ‘hot-spot’ approach. These efforts to deactivate the Eastern Mediterranean route have been to a large degree successful. While during the course of 2016 we saw a sharp decrease in crossings from Turkey to Greece, we observed an increase in crossings from the Central Mediterranean route. This shifting of routes in relation to the high demand for migration resulted in 2016 becoming the deadliest year for migrants ever recorded, with the death toll of migrants at sea reaching 5,079 people. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees intercepted while crossing to Greece after the agreement was signed were put into closed camps called ‘hot-spots’, and even though they are allowed to apply for the EU relocation program they have become disenchanted with the slow pace of the relocations. Additionally, other nationalities are illegally being pushed back to Turkey, with their asylum applications being fast-track rejected or migrants even being denied the right to apply for asylum at all. Plus, due to the fast-track nature of the process, the possibility of harm in case of a return to Turkey is not being properly investigated. Finally, the monitoring of human rights abuses is lacking following the departure of many large INGOs and NGOs in protest at the implementation of the ‘hot-spots’ approach.
Following the EU-Turkey agreement and disincentives for migrants to cross using the Eastern Mediterannean Route, as well as the effective closing of Greece’s northern borders after the domino effect caused by the closing of the Slovenian and Croatian borders, the number of crossings has fallen drastically. At the same time, more than 60,000 Syrian refugees and migrants of different nationalities have become trapped in Greece against their will, unable to reach their destination countries due to the closed borders. Since the EU asylum relocation program is functioning at a very slow pace and is not accessible to anyone but Syrians, the Western Balkan Route has been reactivated. Refugees and migrants are crossing to their destinations in Northern Europe with the use of smuggling networks, which leaves them vulnerable to physical violence, trafficking, exploitation, and in some cases death.
Following the closing of the Greek sea border and the accompanying human rights abuses, refugees and migrants are increasingly again using the Central Mediterranean Route, which has proven to be, as we showed above, the deadliest of all. Migrants, as has been shown by recent events, are once again drowning by their hundreds in their effort to find a better future in Europe. After many decades of experience with irregular migration, it has become clear that the efforts carried out by the EU cannot stop the migrant flows towards Europe; instead, they only force them to choose more dangerous paths each time, causing more deaths. It is therefore the responsibility of policymakers to make these crossings safe with respect to the human rights conventions that have been ratified by all EU states. Not to do so is against the values of EU and creates the image of a union whose theory and praxis are incompatible, which would be a major blow to its international prestige.
On creating safe routes and legal channels for refugees
On the implementation of the human rights-based approach
On search and rescue on the sea
A permanent humanitarian rescue operation should be created;
On agreements with the third countries
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According the article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the term “refugee shall apply to any person who […] (2) As a result of events occurring before I January 1951 and owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
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 Despite the fact that Turkey is a signatory country both of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Turkey has not lifted the geographical limitation in terms of determining the refugee status of those coming from non-European countries.
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Relocation and Resettlement: Positive trend continues, but more efforts needed
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