Europe and Migration: On The Turning Away?

Lampedusa migration facility (Photo: European Commission)

Containment and fortification have been key policy focus point in migration management when it comes to European decisions, the Mixed Migration Center (MMC), an independent think tank inside the Danish Refugee Council found in its latest report on international migration. Although there are some welcome examples – like the measures taken concerning refugees from Ukraine –, but most of the thinking is done about management, rather than rights protection, echoed the MMC.

European migration policy has turned to technical questions concerning management and the fight against smugglers while the number of arrivals has increased, alongside the deaths in tragic events at sea, the Mixed Migration Center (MMC) found in its latest report.

One Step Forwards, One Step Sideways: Europe Fortifies

Agreements amongst EU member states regarding migration have made some progress recently. One such agreement was reached early in October 2023 regarding a draft framework for allocating blame for the arrival of a sizable displaced population in the event of a natural disaster or conflict. However, rather than defending their fundamental rights, policy discussions have generally centered on controlling refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers (for instance, through memorandums of understanding with Libya and Tunisia to intercept crossings before they reach Europe). While the EU has not yet directly funded the construction of border walls, it is investing significant sums of money in surveillance technologies and other border management measures. This broad shift in policy has continued toward fortification and containment.

The most common route to enter Europe is still the Central Mediterranean route, which leads to Italy. Then comes the Western Mediterranean and Atlantic routes, which lead to Spain, and the Eastern Mediterranean route, which leads to Greece. However, the cost of deaths and disappearances along this route is still very high.

The Eastern Mediterranean remained the least travelled route into Europe in 2023, with a total of 19,676 arrivals (15 540 by sea and 4 136 by land) as of 3 September. This is just a fraction of the estimated 861,630 who arrived in Europe from the Eastern Mediterranean in 2015, when it was by far the most used entry point for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.2 Among registered arrivals in 2023, 22.7 percent were Palestinian, while others came from Afghanistan (11.7 percent), Somalia (10.4 percent), Syria (9.1 percent), Eritrea (8.7 percent) and Democratic Republic of Congo (7.3 percent).

Despite the reduced numbers of people attempting the journey through the Eastern Mediterranean, the death toll has risen in recent years, with a total of 378 dead and missing in 2022—the highest recorded figure since 2016.

The first months of 2023 appear to have seen a slight reduction in deaths, with 53 dead or missing recorded between January and the end of August, compared to 101 the year previously.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 22 165 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers reached Spain between 1 January and 3 September, the majority in the Canary Islands (11 690) and mainland Andalucía (6 513), with others entering at various points on Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coastline (1979), Ceuta (722), the Balearic Islands (917) and Melilla (344). Almost all of these arrivals (21 777) were by sea.

According to IOM, the number of dead and missing on the Western Mediterranean route was 205 between January and the end of August 2023, lower than the number recorded during the same period in 2022 (314). Along the Western Africa–Atlantic route to the Canary Islands, meanwhile, 396 people died in the first eight months of the year. In particular, the summer months saw a sharp increase in fatalities, with some blaming the slow response of Moroccan and Spanish authorities.

Northern and Central European Countries Might Have Had Enough

Many northern and central European countries have implemented measures to restrict or reduce migration, even though the situation in southern countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain receives the majority of attention when it comes to migration to Europe. The UK government responded to the increasing number of boat arrivals by enacting the Illegal Migration Act in July 2023, which was approved by parliament. In what the UNHCR has called a de facto “asylum ban,”76 the law requires the removal of anyone who enters the UK irregularly, including unaccompanied minors, separated children, and survivors of human trafficking or modern slavery, to a third country, regardless of the viability of their asylum claim (see box below).

Tartous and Latakia were added to Denmark’s list of areas in Syria that could be deemed “safe” for return in March 2023. This means that Syrians residing in those regions may have their temporary protection status revoked and be forced to return to the areas they had previously fled. Sweden has also tightened its immigration policies in the wake of national elections held in September 2022, in which the far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats received 20 percent of the vote.

Some nations, like Hungary, who have long-standing anti-immigration policies, have gone farther in implementing them. The European Court of Human Rights declared in June 2023 that the Viktor Orban government’s 2020 asylum policy, which required potential asylum seekers to leave the nation and submit an application from Hungary’s embassies in Serbia or Ukraine, violated EU law. The decision was made during the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to these limitations, only 44 persons were able to apply for asylum in Hungary during the entire year of 2022. This policy has played a significant role in the country’s discriminatory asylum practices.

Ukraine and Belarus Remain Central Questions

Authorities in Belarus permitted thousands of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers to cross the border into Poland starting in the summer of 2021. Many of them became stuck there and were unable to leave Poland or return to Belarus. Many have died as a result of being trapped in a deep forest without enough access to food, shelter, or medical supplies. According to IOM, at least 30 people have died or vanished at the border in the first half of 2023—nearly as many as in all of 2021 (22) and 2022 (11). Even more optimistic estimates have been produced by other groups, like the human rights organization Grupa Granica, which claims that between the start of the crisis in 2021 and the end of May 2023, at least 45 people have died and over 300 more are missing.

Although Belarus has been charged with turning the desperation of migrants into a weapon, Poland’s intransigence, demonstrated by the building of a 190-kilometer wire border fence, has also been a factor in the prolonged humanitarian crisis.

Approximately 150 refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers attempt to cross the border each day despite the challenging circumstances; many of them entered Europe using Russian visas. There have been calls in some parts of Germany to strengthen border controls with Poland due to the apparent increase in arrivals during 2023.

There have been numerous displacements as a result of the conflict in Ukraine’s shifting front lines and Russian forces’ targeting of civilian infrastructure. About 16.9 million movements related to conflicts occurred in the nation in 2022; many of these individuals were displaced more than once. This amounts to about 60 percent of all movements caused by conflict that year on a global scale. There were nearly 5.1 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Ukraine as of the end of May 2023, with the majority of them concentrated in the east of the nation and the area surrounding Kiev, though there are IDPs in most oblasts. About 2 200 people were displaced when the Kakhovka Dam was destroyed on June 6, ostensibly by Russian forces. There are worries that the long-term effects of the disaster on the environment, the economy, and human health may force more people to permanently leave the area.

Currently, 5.97 million of the 6.33 million Ukrainian refugees who are officially registered are in Europe. Poland (1.63 million), Russia (1.28 million), Germany (1.08 million), and the Czechia (350 000) have the largest populations. The EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), which offers immediate protection and access to social services, education, health care, housing, and other necessities, has caused the resettlement of millions of Ukrainians throughout Europe, including in nations with blatantly hostile policies towards refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers in general. The TPD was introduced a week after the invasion and is presently set to expire in March 2024.

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