Migration evidence shows how badly the EU needs to rethink its strategy

A Syrian child sleeps on the street in Kos. EPA/Yannis Kolesidis

European leaders continue to be stumped by the so-called migration crisis. Fences are going up in the east and warnings are being issued that there is no more room. But people keep coming.

Europe’s agenda on migration is primarily focused on preventing people from reaching Europe. It seems to rest on the assumption that an unending number of people want to come to the EU, and that deterrent measures are therefore necessary.

But our new research shows that these are flawed assumptions. It suggests that people don’t always move with the aim of reaching Europe as an ideal end goal. Often they simply seek a place of safety.

We’ve conducted in-depth interviews with people who recently arrived by boat in Greece, Sicily and Malta. If the knowledge we’ve gathered were used to help those on the move, people might not be dying at sea or living in squalor across Europe.

Since September 2015, we have collected harrowing stories from the men, women and unaccompanied minors undertaking journeys across the Mediterranean. We have heard how they have travelled on rubber dinghies across dangerous seas, fearful for their lives.

Refugees wait at the Macedonian border, where strict limits on new entrants are being applied. EPA/Georgi Licovski

Many of the people migrating across the Mediterranean have fled violence and insecurity, extreme poverty and personal problems that threaten their safety. These experiences occur not only in their home countries but also en route. People’s vulnerability accumulates over time, with those who have experienced violence and exploitation during the journey often highly traumatised when they arrive in the EU.

People making their way to Europe often do not know much about EU policies. Many of those crossing via the central route from Libya, for example, did not explicitly plan to come to the EU. They are simply moving from place to place in search of peace and dignity.

It may seem obvious that if you are going to decide on an effective way to deal with people on the move, you would base it on evidence about their experiences and expectations. Unfortunately, many European leaders seem to be operating on the basis of misplaced and highly problematic assumptions about why these people are moving and what they are trying to achieve. They presume that blocking their passage will stop them. But it’s not as simple as that. People’s experiences, knowledge and expectations differ between routes – and attention to such detail is important.

For example, while EU politicians ask people to stay away and avoid travelling with smugglers, many of our interviewees told us that they have no choice but to travel via smuggling networks. They cannot stay where they have come from, they face extreme poverty or violence in neighbouring countries (which already host many more refugees than the EU), and there are no alternative ways for them to reach safety.

Applying what we know

These findings indicate that a completely different approach is needed in Europe.

For a start, the EU needs to stop thinking about border control policies and instead address the diverse causes of irregular migration, including factors such as conflict or violence and extreme poverty or dispossession. That means improving the livelihoods and educational opportunities on offer to these people across a range of home countries, as well as across regions neighbouring major conflict zones such as Syria. Supporting educational and work opportunities in Turkey may be a more effective solution than sending ships to police the Aegean, for example.

Europe also needs to revise migration and protection categories to reflect the multiple reasons why people are on the move. At the moment, the EU distinguishes between “forced” and “voluntary” migration, but that fails to reflect the many reasons behind people leaving their homes.

Fleeing one’s home due to family conflict, then escaping violence and exploitative labour in Libya, for example, does not qualify a person to receive international protection. Despite this, people cannot return safely. A deepened appreciation of international refugee and human rights law, more reflective of lived experiences, is urgently needed.

Some of the people we spoke to had family members in the EU, but still had to travel via smuggling networks. Search and rescue mechanisms are insufficient, because they are coupled with anti-smuggling measures and do not address the reasons why people risk their lives at sea. The EU also needs to open safe and legal routes, and improve reception conditions for new arrivals. That way, the EU might better meet its obligations to protect people on the move.

Finally, people arriving in Europe need more information along the way. They need to know about the procedures they will have to go through when they arrive in Europe. That way they will be able to access the rights to which they are entitled, instead of facing further risks on arrival.

If our research findings were taken seriously, European leaders would not be building walls and telling people to stay away. They would be working together to ensure that traumatised people are protected, and to ensure that the EU lives up to its reputation as an upholder of human rights and international protection. As one of our interviewees told us: “Europe just talks about human rights… Where are the human rights, when someone escapes war and you shut all the doors in his face?”