The Current Situation

(Written by Elisa Gabellieri)

When did migration movements turned into a refugee crisis?

Today, millions of desperate people are on the march: the milestone was passed on December 21, 2015 when more than 1,006,000 people entered European Union by either land or sea.

A steady escalation of asylum seekers started in March 2011, when in the middle of the Arab Spring, anti-government demonstrations began in Syria, first step towards the civil war. Indeed, after the government’s violent breakdown of demonstrations, rebels began fighting back against the regime. However, a complicated mix of war, economic conditions and logistical considerations lies behind the exponential surge of refugees and migrants into Europe in the spring of 2015.

On one hand, the ongoing violence and instability in origin countries convinced masses of people to flee from their countries, while also making return impossible in the short-medium term. On the other hand, policy announcements by the European governments as well as a creative use of social media contributed to move the attention of people seeking for asylum away from bordering countries with ever tighter controls and towards Europe.
Migrants and refugees arrive in Europe via three primary routes:
1.      Central Mediterranean: travelling on smuggler boats departing from Libya, Tunisia, or Egypt, this is the only possibility for sub-Saharan nationals to reach the shores of Italy and Malta
2.      Eastern Mediterranean: preferred by Syrian nationals, crossing form Turkey to Greece (especially to Greek islands) is indeed a shorter and safer route largely adopted by Afghan and Pakistani nationals, too.
3.      Western Balkans: at the crossroad of Western Balkans and Central Europe, Hungary represents a key passage both for Kosovo and Albania nationals and for migrants travelling onwards from Greece.

The relative significance of these three routes has shifted throughout 2015, driven mainly by Syrian refugees who count for more than 50% of arrivals in 2015 and representing the biggest single source of refugees in the world. Those reaching the European soil, however, are just a small percentage of the more than four million Syrians who migrated to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Living as refugees, Syrians who fled into the bordering countries are denied the right to work and to go to school. School education for children is indeed mentioned as main reason for Syrian refugees to march onwards towards Europe. Syrians, like Eritreans, are granted protection in 90% of the cases followed by Afghans, Iraqis, and Somalis.

The crisis we are witnessing today, however, has to do with much more than the wars erupted in Syrian Libya. The very roots of the current crises are indeed to be found in the failure of building modern and fair political institutions in countries where colonization ended less than a hundred years ago. On the other hand, Europe is undergoing a social crises as deep as the one of the Middle East, just quieter. Under normal circumstances, the rights-based, legalistic approach for accommodating thousands of migrants could work reasonably well. But when the flow of refugees passes a certain threshold, receiving countries no longer have the social and economic conditions for absorbing mass migration. Add to this picture the continuing budgetary and welfare crises and the mass youth unemployment in many European economies, and it is easy to envision a point at which Europe’s capacity to absorb refugees reaches a ceiling.

Policies implemented by European institutions in response to the question of asylum seekers might be seen as partial. Three are indeed the areas of intervention taken into consideration by governments:
1.      The compassionate embrace of people escaping from danger and oppression
2.      The effort to reduce the flow by intervening at the source
3.      The need of regulating the number of refugees entering Europe
In order to establish a balance between these three elements, governments need to recognize the link existing between active, engaged foreign policies and the implementation of a humane and sustainable asylum policy. Narrowing down institutions’ focus on only one of these three aspects, according to the country-specific need and stat, might therefore represent what turned a policy problem into an international crisis.