According to UNICEF, approximately 165,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe between January and December last year, with most E.U. countries reporting a large increase in arrivals. For example, there were 25,852 arrivals in Spain and 41,000 arrivals in Italy respectively. The rapid change was a result of conflict and political instability in the Middle East and Africa, poor economic conditions, drought, and famine. The ongoing nature of these issues makes it difficult to predict when migration will increase from year to year.
Irregular migration has disastrous consequences. A shipwreck off the Libyan coast in April saw 130 lives lost, and 45 people, including children, drowned off the same coast in August. Last December, three boats capsized in Greece, causing 31 deaths. This was the worst death toll in the Aegean since 2015. While most refugees die at sea, others suffocate in trucks, are run over by cars, or die of exposure when they reach Europe. The International Organization for Migration reports that almost 23,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2014, including 848 children. An estimated 1,465 people died or were reported missing in the Mediterranean Sea, a favourite route to Europe, in 2021, and 785 have died crossing the Atlantic Ocean, attempting to reach the Canary Islands. Most of these people are from impoverished or war-torn countries and are simply seeking better, more peaceful lives.
The Western Mediterranean route – from Africa, through the Middle East and Southeast Asia into Greece and the Balkans – has become increasingly choked with draconian policies from Italy. Since 2018, the country has attempted to stop arrivals by funding Libyan coastguard vessels to monitor Libyan waters and drag back boats. Former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini also prevented rescue vessels from docking in Italian ports. Human Rights Watch reports that the Italian and Libyan Governments struck an agreement in February 2021 to renew their cooperation for another three years, despite the clear absence of an orderly pathway for seeking asylum in Libya. However, Italy reversed many of its harsh policies on boat turnback and prosecuting search and rescue at sea late last year, re-establishing residency permits on humanitarian grounds and allowing recognized refugees and undocumented children to remain in Italy when awaiting a visa decision. This change in policy could save thousands of innocent lives.
In contrast, Greece saw a marked decrease in arrivals last year. Greek policies involve the rebuilding or improvement of refugee camps on five Aegean Islands and one near the land border with Turkey. The camps are expected to hold up to 13,000 people and are designed for temporary containment with the intention of returning refugees to Turkey, creating poor, often dangerous conditions. This can be seen in the Moria camp fire on the island of Lesbos in 2020. The Greek government also implements a strict turnback policy, with the Coast Guard forcibly returning boats of arriving migrants to Turkey. The Aegean Boat Report, a not-for-profit monitoring refugee boats, reported that over 14,000 people were forcibly towed back to Turkey in 2021. These turnbacks are supplemented with sound cannons to drive arrivals away on land borders, as well as large steel walls built to block crossing points between Greece and Turkey.
This reveals the sinister reality of how E.U. member states are increasingly dealing with irregular migration.
The E.U., where human rights law originated, prides itself on freedom of movement within its borders. However, these rights and freedoms are clearly not extended to vulnerable people fleeing persecution or famine from war-torn countries. This needs to change. All members of the European Union, including Italy and Greece, ratified the Refugee Convention long ago, agreeing to prohibit the penalization of refugees on account of their illegal entry or presence. Current E.U. policies disregard both that Convention and the idea of a progressive and welcoming Europe. The E.U. has an obligation to adhere to international law by providing the safe havens and timely processing for all arrivals laid out in the Convention and to accept any legitimate refugees.
Over 150 countries, including most E.U. member states, additionally adopted the (non-binding) Global Compact on Migration in 2018, which commits signatories to “save lives and prevent migrant deaths” by providing search and rescue assistance and ensuring policies don’t “raise or create risk” for migrants. However, 5 of the 29 countries who refused or abstained from adopting the compact, including Italy, are E.U. member states, and most E.U. countries have now adopted irregular migration policies and legislation that are endangering lives. Signatories to the Compact have an additional duty to ensure that their obligations are met by protecting arrivals through search and rescue operations, suspending turnbacks, and providing healthcare and support to arrivals while their claims are processed.
It should be noted that irregular migration is a complex problem because of hard-to-solve issues elsewhere, including poor economic conditions; social, cultural and religious persecution; and conflict. But there are steps that the E.U. can take to find solutions that are responsible, humane and consistent with the obligations under international law.
The first is to boost levels of legal migration to allow economic migrants to apply through formal channels instead of risking their lives crossing war-torn countries, crowding on leaky rafts, and risking open water. Economic migrants are proven to be good citizens when they are given adequate support, and European countries, particularly those with ageing populations, should encourage their arrival. Information campaigns in economic migrants’ countries of origin can reduce irregular migration by outlining the risks. This can be rolled out in collaboration with meaningful partnerships between European and developing countries to support potential migrants at home and to provide necessary support if they wish to migrate through formal channels. This will reduce the number of economic migrants taking dangerous routes to Europe and will enable E.U. countries to focus on the welfare and processing of legitimate refugees.
Refugee pathways should also be increased in transit countries, such as Turkey, Libya, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan, to provide support and opportunities to process asylum claims in an orderly and timely manner. This will help prevent desperate refugees from getting on boats or taking dangerous land routes to Europe.
Increasing aid to countries which contribute heavily to migration, such as Tunisia, Morocco, Afghanistan, Syria, and Bangladesh, can mitigate these countries’ problems and help them to develop, thereby reducing displacement. Most importantly, however, E.U. countries need to process and take in any legitimate refugees that arrive on their shores, including those found in E.U. waters, to save lives and give people a chance at better circumstances, as per their rights under international law. This is a more humane approach that will lead to better outcomes for both Europe and the developing world.