More than 85,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean in smugglers’ boats since the start of 2015, and the peak sailing season is only just getting under way. The British media reports the warship HMS Bulwark is re-locating closer to the Libyan cost to rescue migrants.
The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) Europe, a Brussels-based think tank, has just released a report – Before the Boat: Understanding the Migrant Journey which challenges some of the “simplistic assumptions” currently informing the drafting of migration policies.
1. Migrants embark on perilous journeys because they don’t understand the risks
Migrants are usually well-informed about the dangers of a particular route, but view the expected benefits of reaching their destination as worth the risks. People are generally not very good at calculating risk and migrants have the same tendency as the rest of us to underestimate immediate dangers when they are focused on realising a longer-term goal. Forced migrants such as those fleeing the conflict in Syria often experience severe hardships in places where they seek refuge such as Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. Remaining in those countries may feel more dangerous than the short-term risk involved in reaching a place of safety in Europe.
2. Origin and transit countries can stem the flow of irregular migrants
Another key element of the new EU Agenda on Migration is “working in partnership with third countries to tackle migration upstream”. The approach includes helping such countries strengthen their borders and crack down on smuggling networks, as well as implementing readmission agreements that allow the EU to return irregular migrants to countries such as Turkey and Tunisia. The MPI report warns that source and transit countries have limited interest or capacity to deal with irregular migration and that practical implementation of cooperation agreements has been slow.
“The political importance of stopping irregular migrant arrivals in the European Union is not shared by third-country partners,” note the authors, who recommend longer-term, broad-based political engagement with relevant countries. Why would you expect Sudan to do better at dealing with migrants and organised crime if Greece is very much struggling to respond to what it's facing? “Why would you expect Sudan to be better at dealing with migrants and organised crime if Greece is very much struggling to respond to what it’s facing?” reasoned Jacob Townsend, one of the authors of the report. “The idea you can just ask your partners to do something about it when it’s clearly a massive challenge – you might just be setting yourself up for frustration.”
3. Migrants are victims of smugglers
“There’s an implicit view that the smuggler is the supplier of services and the migrant is just a passive victim or commodity,” said Townsend. “But that’s a bit erroneous in most cases, that’s more like human trafficking. In migrant smuggling, the migrant is an active player facing various difficult choices; they’re more like a consumer.” Migrants seek out information and recommendations from friends and relatives who have already made the journey and, to a lesser extent, rely on information available on social media, before making decisions about which smugglers to use.
“Sometimes smugglers are seen as the ones you need to stay alive,” said Christel Oomen, the report’s co-author. “They can be seen more as a tour guide; someone who knows how to travel certain roads which are feared more in certain areas because of government forces – for example the road between Bengazi and Tripoli (in Libya).” She added that migrants distinguish between different types of smugglers from the Libyan bosses who control the boats to agents and facilitators back home. “Just to use the word ‘smuggler’ without defining it better doesn’t really resonate with a lot of migrants.”
4. Cracking down on smuggling networks will significantly reduce irregular migration
Smuggling networks are fluid and capable of adapting to new policies and law enforcement initiatives quicker than governments are able to draft them. They also often rely on loose collaborations that include corrupt officials and people running legitimate businesses such as travel agencies or transport companies. Attempting to disrupt smuggling networks with a short-term military campaign such as the one currently being planned by EU foreign and defense ministers to target migrant smugglers in Libya is likely to have no more than a temporary affect, said Townsend. “The key question is how long you can sustain it? Politically, and in terms of the costs. It’s extremely likely that smugglers can outlast the EU if it’s the only plank of an approach.”
EU ministers have approved the plan, which includes capturing and destroying the boats used by smugglers before they are loaded with migrants. But the use of military force requires a resolution from the UN Security Council which has yet to be granted. Leaked documents outlining the EU plan note the “high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life”. They also acknowledge that disrupting migratory flows in the Central Mediterranean could result in increased migratory flows in other areas such as the Eastern Mediterranean (the route between Turkey and Greece). For countries like the UK, France and Spain, the military plan is politically more attractive than the Commission’s proposal that they admit even a small additional number of refugees or asylum seekers.
5. Migration and asylum policies have a major impact on migrants’ choice of destination
Migrants had varying levels of understanding of migration policy in Europe. Their decision to opt for a particular European country often had less to do with its migration policies than the presence of a strong diaspora community and attractive economic and social conditions. While the EU’s legal and policy frameworks depend on separating migrants into two categories: those who have a legitimate claim to asylum and those who don’t, migrants themselves often do not make such distinctions.
“The majority of people we’ve spoken to, the key question is the long-term outcome. So they don’t really care what their legal category is. They just want the question answered – will I be able to reside in Europe long term?” said Townsend.