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Refugee and migrant arrivals in the EU in 2016: who are we talking about?

A thoughtful analysis should deconstruct narratives portraying migrants as a ‘weapon’ and identify them for what they are: people looking for international protection or, at most, better living conditions.

Greek coast guard officer tries to calm Syrians who are part of the the largest refugee flow the continent has seen since WW11 Greek coast guard officer tries to calm Syrians who are part of the the largest refugee flow the continent has seen since World War II.Thanassis Stavrakis / Press Association. All rights reserved. The refugee and migrant crisis is a highly sensitive political topic in the European Union. Commentators use different terminologies. Many European media outlets, politicians and officials argue that many (or most) migrants who are arriving in Europe are actually economic migrants, rather than refugees requiring international protection. According to this line of thought, it is more accurate to talk about ‘mixed flows’ rather than flows of refugees.

While it is correct to say that not all migrants are refugees, data of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that 82% of the arrivals by sea to the EU in 2016 come from the world’s top-10 ‘refugee producing countries’. Nearly half of 172,945 people who reached the EU by sea from 1 January until early April 2016 come from Syria, another 23% from Afghanistan and 14% from Iraq. Children make up 35% of the total and women another 20%. As the UNHCR claims, ‘the vast majority of those attempting this dangerous crossing are in need of international protection, fleeing war, violence and persecution in their country of origin’.

Arguments highlighting that current migrant flows in the Mediterranean are ‘mixed’, without further qualification, oversimplify an issue that is overwhelmingly humanitarian. Different sources of data, such as the number of asylum permits granted by national authorities, may be quoted in support of claims that the percentage of economic migrants is higher than that which can be derived from UNHCR analyses. However, we can reasonably presume that the UNHCR receives less political pressure than national immigration authorities when assessing the nature of the phenomenon.

National immigration authorities in the EU are more likely to be affected by the policies of the respective national governments, which are now focusing more on curbing the influx of migrants and refugees rather than on humanitarian considerations. Evidence of this focus is provided by the deal that the EU and its member states have made with authoritarian Turkey to curb migration flows, regardless of the fact that Turkey is not a safe country of asylum for refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other non-European countries.

Furthermore, sweeping references to migrant flows as being made up of ‘illegal’ migrants – another refrain of mainstream European politicians, officials and commentators - misses the point of the need to seek international protection. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees recognizes that people may have to enter a country where they seek protection illegally and should not be penalized for this. UNHCR data shows that most of the people in question are highly likely to be in need of international protection, hence it is beside the point to label them on the basis of how they arrive to Europe.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, it has become fashionable to portray migrants as a security threat, despite the fact that most perpetrators of the Paris attacks were EU citizens and had already lived on EU territory for years. Willingly or unwillingly, this thinking conveys the idea that a terrorist, or at least a security threat, may be hidden behind every migrant. Besides being grossly incorrect, this approach plays into the hands of extremists who are eager to describe the current crisis exclusively as a security issue. It also serves the purposes of external actors who presumably want to use migrants as a ‘weapon’ to destabilise the EU.

A thoughtful analysis should deconstruct narratives portraying migrants as a ‘weapon’ and identify them for what they are: people looking for international protection or, at most, better living conditions. Moreover, it is important to stress that – as Europol Director Rob Wainwright argued in February 2016 – “There are no concrete indications that terrorists are systematically using the stream of refugees to come into Europe undetected”. An informed view will also acknowledge the responsibility that many EU member states carry for causing or contributing to the destabilisation of the countries of origin of the refugees. This applies both to the ‘recent’ wars fought by some European countries (i.e. in Iraq from 2003, in Libya in 2011) and to the heavy, long-term heritage of colonialism and post-colonial policy.

There may be many reasons why media, officials and politicians stress the security implications of the current crisis and the alleged economic motivations of migrants. Some politicians may want to easily gain electoral support by stirring up fear. Similarly, some media are keen on playing the ‘fear card’ in order to draw a broader audience. Furthermore, some security officials may be eager to channel the debate in ways that highlight the merits and role of their institution, or have an ‘over-securitised’ perspective because of their professional focus. While it is important to hear different opinions and sources of information, it is even more important to subject them to scrutiny based on the most reliable data and debunk the increasing trend of securitising humanitarian and migration issues.

About the author

Marco Siddi is a research associate at the CRENoS institute in Cagliari and at the Institute for European Politics in Berlin. He has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where he was also Marie Curie and DAAD fellow. His research focuses on the European Union and Russia.


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