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Debunking myths about why people migrate across the Mediterranean

A boat full of migrants is rescued by the Italian Navy in October 2015. ITALIAN NAVY PRESS OFFICE / HAN /EPA

As people on the move continue to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, and as relations between the European Union and Turkey face imminent meltdown, fears that Europe is being “flooded” with desperate refugees and migrants seeking a better life continue to abound.

A key assumption driving this fear is that large swaths of displaced populations – from Syrians to Nigerians and Afghanis to Eritreans – are picking Europe as their “destination” of choice. However, research my colleagues and I have published in a new report indicate that this assumption is a myth. While some people do of course leave their homes in order to reach Europe, many do not.

The report is based on 257 in-depth interviews conducted in 2015 and 2016, first in Kos, Malta, Sicily and then in Athens, Berlin, Istanbul and Rome. We have also created an interactive story map from some of these interviews.

Tracking journeys to Europe. Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat, Author provided (no reuse)

The myth of ‘destination Europe’

Many people we interviewed did not even know anything about the EU prior to their arrival. Far from planning his journey with Europe as a destination point, one man from the Ivory Coast told us when we spoke to him in Sicily:

My idea was not to reach Italy. I didn’t know Italy if not for the football. I never thought to come in Europe, because here I have not family. My family is only in Ivory Coast and Burkina. But is my family who pushed me to go to Mali. In Mali there was a war, then I moved to Algeria, otherwise I would have stayed there. I wasn’t lucky enough to stay in Algeria, if not I would have to stay there. I didn’t want to go in Libya, the situation is too crazy to go there. It [was] really hard … to stay in Libya … all these circumstances pushed me to reach here.

Such unsustainable living situations were reported by many people who travelled to. In Rome, we interviewed a Palestinian-Syrian refugee who had been born in Libya. He told us:

At first I didn’t want to come to Europe, I wanted to go to another Arabic country. I thought about doing some business in Libya, but then I discovered that there is no security, I can’t be free over there. There is always danger, for everybody. I have discovered a different reality from what I initially imagined in Libya. They treat everyone like slaves.

This man’s testimony resonates with recent reports of people being sold as slaves or prostitutes in Libya. Even those people aiming to set up a new life in Turkey reported problems in their journeys that drove them to move on. As an Afghan man told us when we spoke to him in Athens:

I didn’t care about borders. All I cared about was to save my life, seriously. I thought I could find a safe place and find work and that’s all. Maybe in Turkey. Turkey is a good place. But if they find you are illegal in Turkey they will deport you back to Kabul. This is the reason I came here [to Europe].

Drivers of flight

So for many, “destination Europe” is not a pull factor in their migration journey. If we want to understand why people on the move are willing to risk their lives in unsafe boats heading for Europe, much more attention needs to be paid to the drivers of flight and how to offer effective protection to people driven to take such a dangerous journey.

Many people we spoke to had fled from situations of war or conflict, from the threat of terrorist or cult groups, and from kidnapping and torture or violence. Others had fled from persecution by governments, or from being targeted by governments for conscription.

People also fled from family problems, societal ostracism, extreme discrimination and exploitation, as well as from poverty caused by unemployment or the loss of livelihood. Others faced limited prospects of integration and access to education or language difficulties. A woman from Cameroon who we interviewed in Rome expressed this most succinctly:

It is because of insecurity in our countries that there are many illegal refugees [sic] coming into Europe. Total insecurity is pushing us to migrate … I only want to live in security, I live in fear.

Deterrence doesn’t work

European leaders are now focusing on deterrent policies that try to address the “root causes” of migration. For example, the EU has focused on forging “compacts” with Ethiopia, Lebanon, Jordan, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal as a means to tie development aid to assistance with preventing migration to Europe. But such measures are set to fail where they are rooted in an agenda whose goal is to deter future migration to the EU. This is because people on the move are often unaware of deterrent policies – and, even where they are, the drivers of migration are often more pressing than what might happen to them when they arrive.

In our interviews, we found people arriving in the EU without an understanding of what was about to happen to them, and even against their wishes. As one Nigerian woman who we interviewed in Sicily told us, she was forcibly deported by boat from Libya against her will by somebody who she trusted and considered a friend or protector. She was terrified.

Current EU policies are grounded in misplaced assumptions about migration, which lead to policies that are at best ineffective and at worst damaging for people on the move. Myths that migrants have chosen Europe as their “destination” are not only detrimental for people on the move – they also perpetuate anxieties on the part of the communities across Europe who host migrants and refugees. This myth needs to be rejected so that the wider public debate on migration can move beyond a politics of fear.

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