The Mediterranean ‘migration crisis’

During 2015 over one million people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, and this movement of people very quickly became referred to as Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ (Crawley et al., 2018; Crawley et al., 2016; IOM, 2016; MSF, 2015). At least 3,770 people were thought to have died in the sea whilst trying to make this journey during this same year, and in the previous year, 2014, that number was 3,379 people (IOM, 2016). Although this ‘migration crisis’ was represented as something new and/or seen as uncontrolled and unregulated movement, the movement of people across the Mediterranean to Europe has taken place since the 1990s (Crawley et al., 2018). However, as MSF commented, 2015: ‘will be remembered as the year in which Europe catastrophically failed in its responsibility to respond to the urgent needs of assistance and protection of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people’ (MSF, 2015:4).

MSF (2015) and other commentators also pointed out how this ‘crisis’was met by volunteers and ordinary citizens in the vacuum left behind by State and NGO assistance programmes. MSF also outlined how this was less a crisis of migration and more a crisis of policy that failed to recognise the need for safe and legal routes, policy that was expensive, disjointed and inconsistent (Crawley et al., 2018). As Crawley et al. (2018) suggest, this also failed to recognise historic events and processes leading up to 2015. In 2008 there had been a global financial crisis that had triggered European austerity policies. The Arab Spring of 2011; the Greek debt crisis; wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya; a security crisis related to the rise of terrorism; and humanitarian emergencies/ crisis across Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, along the Balkan route and in countries of first arrival such as Greece and Italy were all factors in the emergence of this so-called migration crisis (Crawley et al., 2018).

Additionally, the backstories of those arriving - the causes and dynamics involved in their decisions to make such journeys and the fragmented nature of these journeys — were largely lost in Europe’s ‘migration crisis’. This untold story failed to distinguish the different characteristics of those making the journey as well as distinct routes via Italy and Greece and their differing responses. As Crawley et al. (2018) outline, Italy had experience of refugees and migrants arriving by sea, at least since 1991 when a boat — the Hora - with thousands of people from Albania arrived in Apulia. Italy had also put in place a set of measures since 2011, following the Arab Spring, with search and rescue systems in place and a system for disembarkation. Greece, having had more limited arrivals by sea, was less prepared for the sea arrivals, leading to chaotic scenes and inadequate humanitarian responses which remain in place on the island of Lesvos to date.

Routes taken to Italy (the Central Mediterranean route) and Greece (the Eastern Mediterranean route) were composed of people with differing characteristics (Crawley et al., 2018). Those arriving in Italy came from diverse

Contemporary issues and the refugee ‘crisis’ 201 countries of origin such as Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan and only around 3% from Syria — having crossed by boat mainly from Libya. Their routes prior to this were diverse with North, West and East African routes converging in Libya. Those arriving in Greece mainly came from three countries — Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq — having mainly travelled through Turkey from neighbouring countries or taken routes via the Middle East or North Africa. The oversimplification of the use of'smugglers’ and ‘smuggling networks’ has been the focus of attention by European governments, although considered a necessity (however violent and abusive) by those making these journeys (Crawley et al., 2018).

Europe’s response to people arriving across the Mediterranean, whilst small in comparison to other contexts of displacement, was based upon ‘a series of flawed assumptions about the dynamics of migration across the Mediterranean’ and little understanding of the complexities or factors that led people to leave in the first instance (Crawley et al., 2018:129). That the EU was slow to respond, failed to share responsibility for arrivals in a principled or pragmatic way and was based on preventing or discouraging people from making the journeys became apparent during subsequent years (Crawley et al., 2018; see also Chapter 7 on containment strategies and deterrence policies).

Closing borders, building fences and reinforcing border controls led in time to an agreement between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, wherein new arrivals from Greece were returned to Turkey in exchange for resettlement of Syrian nationals from Turkey to the EU, established on the basis of Turkey being a ‘safe third country’ to process such systems (Crawley et al., 2018). Another agreement, between the EU and the Libyan coast guard to return people intercepted in the Mediterranean to Libya has led to use of detention, migrants being sold as slaves within Libya, extortion, torture, rapes and deaths of those attempting this journey.

Points for discussion - the ‘migration crisis’and the EU

  • • Why do you consider that this movement of people was represented as a ‘crisis’?
  • • Why do you think that this has not been the case in other humanitarian contexts that may have been larger in scale?
  • • What ‘durable solutions’ have been emphasised within the EU?
  • • How does this reflect on Europe’s creation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its associated Protocol immediately following WWI1?
  • • What impact will this so-called crisis have on the future of protection of refugees and the principle of asylum within the EU and across the globe?
  • • What role do you think ‘smugglers’ and ‘traffickers’ had within this movement of people?
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