Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

“I never thought to come in Europe”: unpacking the myths of Europe’s ‘migration crisis’

Europe’s failure to listen to people on the move has left it blind to why many people end up going there.

Vicki Squire
31 May 2017
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Men and women wait to disembark a navy transport at the port of Messina, on the island of Sicily, on 17 April 2017. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

With the so-called European ‘migration crisis’ showing no signs of abating, a new report and interactive story map by the project Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat unpacks some of the myths on which policy-making is based, and demonstrates the need for a new approach based on an appreciation of the journeys, experiences and testimonies of people on the move.

An on-going European ‘migration crisis’

Download the full project report as a PDF

As people on the move continue to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, and as EU-Turkey relations face imminent meltdown, fears of a European Union ‘flooded’ with desperate refugees and with migrants seeking a better life continue to abound. A key assumption driving this fear is that Europe serves as a place of destination for large swathes of displaced populations.

However, research documented in a new report by the project Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat indicates that this assumption is a myth. Written by researchers from the Universities of Warwick and Malta and the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, the report is based on 257 in-depth qualitative interviews conducted across two periods and two migratory routes. Interviews were first carried out in Kos, Malta and Sicily from September-November 2015 (with additional interviews in Malta until March 2016), and subsequently in Athens, Bern, Istanbul and Rome from May-July 2016.

The myth of ‘destination Europe’

While some people do of course leave countries of origin in order to reach ‘destination Europe’, many do not. Indeed, what is striking in our research is that many people we interviewed did not even know anything about the EU states prior to their arrival, let alone planned their journey with Europe as a destination point. As one man from the Ivory Coast told us when we spoke to him in Sicily:

"My idea was not to reach Italy. I didn’t know Italy if not for the football. I never thought to come in Europe, because here I have not family. My family is only in Ivory Coast and Burkina. But is my family who pushed me to go to Mali. In Mali there was a war, then I moved to Algeria, otherwise I would have stayed there. I wasn’t lucky enough to stay in Algeria, if not I would have to stay there. I didn’t want to go in Libya, the situation is too crazy to go there. It [..was..] really hard …to stay in Libya… all these circumstances pushed me to reach here. I went in Algeria and I failed… I went in Libya and there was the death."

Indeed, unsustainable living situations were reported by many people who travelled to Italy via Libya, as a Palestinian Syrian who had been born in Libya told us when we interviewed him in Rome:

“At first I didn’t want to come to Europe, I wanted to go to another Arabic country… I thought about doing some business in Libya, but then I discovered that there is no security, I can’t be free over there. There is always danger, for everybody. I have discovered a different reality from what I initially imagined in Libya… They treat everyone like slaves.”

This man’s testimony resonates with recent reports of people being sold as slaves or prostitutes in Libya. However, it is not only on the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy that our interviewees report problems en route as the main reason for onward movement to the EU. As an Afghan man told us when we spoke to him in Athens:

“I didn’t care about borders. All I cared about was to save my life, seriously. I thought I could find a safe place and find work and that’s all. Maybe in Turkey. Turkey is a good place. But if they find you are illegal in Turkey they will deport you back to Kabul. This is the reason I came here [to Europe].”

In sum, rather than ‘destination Europe’ being a ‘pull factor’ as is so often assumed in political and public debates about the European ‘migration crisis’, our research indicates that if we want to understand why people on the move are willing to risk their lives in unsafe boats heading for Europe, much more attention needs to be paid to the drivers of flight and the protections that these demand.

Intersecting drivers of flight

People on the move experience various dangers or harms from which they need to escape, not only in countries of origin but also throughout the migratory journey. For example, many people we spoke to fled from situations of war/conflict; from the threat of terrorist/cult groups; from kidnapping and torture; from violence by authorities or by local populations; from governmental exclusion of non-nationals; and from being targeted by governments for conscription or for punishment.

People also fled from family problems; societal ostracism; extreme discrimination and exploitation; as well as from situations marked by the absence of employment; by limited prospects of integration and access to education; and by language difficulties. A woman from Cameroon who we interviewed in Rome expresses the significance of drivers of flight most succinctly:

“It is because of insecurity in our countries that there are many illegal refugees [sic] coming into Europe. Total insecurity is pushing us to migrate… I only want to live in security, I live in fear.”

What is particularly striking in our research is that differing drivers of flight are often connected rather than separate, and often accumulate over the course of the migratory journey. For example, one woman we spoke to in Rome was a mother of six who had fled the war in Eritrea. As a half-Eritrean, half-Ethiopian Christian in Sudan, she faced discrimination and threats and all her documents were taken from her. She eventually escaped for Europe with her three youngest children, but left without her husband due to religious persecution by family members. She explains how despite her long search for safety, Europe was the only place where she found protection:

“Europe is the only place that has the power to protect me, and help me. For me being a refugee is very tiring, because for each of us [it] is better staying in our country, our roots. But here [in Europe] there is a freedom, whereas from where I am from there are dictators, and I don’t have the freedom.”

What this woman’s story indicates is that we need a different language from that of ‘mixed migration flows’, which implies that people who flee for differing reasons come together along the same migratory routes. Instead, a language of intersecting drivers of flight is more appropriate in clarifying how individual migratory journeys result from multiple cross-cutting drivers, which render people precarious in ways that compound one another over time. The challenge, then, is how to respond to such a complex challenge most effectively.

The failure of a deterrent approach

Although an approach focused on measures to address the ‘root causes’ of migration has again come to the fore of policy debates, such measures are set to fail where they are rooted in A European Agenda on Migration that remains tied to an agenda of deterring migration to the EU. This is because people on the move are often unaware of deterrent policies, and even where they are the drivers of migration are often more pressing than deterrence.

Indeed, our report goes further to show how deterrent policies risk lives while perpetuating further harms against people who experience intersecting drivers of flight, as discussed above. For example, this is evident in the statement by a Syrian man who we interviewed in Athens, who reflected on the sub-standard living conditions he became trapped within as borders closed to deter onward migration through the EU:

“European policy is like subjection. Honestly, subjection. They opened the door of refuge to us and subjected us to coming. Why did they close it on our face as soon as we arrived?”

Yet perhaps the most damning evidence against a deterrent approach predicated on the attraction of ‘destination Europe’ lies in the evidence we found of people arriving to the EU without a solid understanding of what was about to happen, and even against their wishes. As one Nigerian woman who we interviewed in Sicily told us, she was forcibly deported from Libya against her will by somebody who she trusted and considered a friend or protector:

“…in the midnight like that her husband put me inside his car… the next day after they drive in the night I see myself near the sea. I don’t even know that sea… He said: ‘Just look at people, if I see people enter inside the boat I should enter’. I start crying, I say: ‘No!’ Because the sea is very big, I was afraid! I say: ‘No, take me back! Take me back!’ The man say: ‘Stay here! …That is the way I enter the boat.”

Moving forward

Current EU policies are grounded in misplaced assumptions about the migratory journey and experience, which lead to policies that are at best ineffective and at worst damaging for people on the move. Indeed, what emerges from our new report and interactive story map is a picture characterised by the systematic failure of rights provision and the institutionalisation of measures that perpetuate harm.


Crossing The Med online interactive story map

Misplaced assumptions are not only detrimental for people on the move – they also perpetuate anxieties on the part of host communities. One of the misplaced assumptions that our research highlights is the myth that ‘destination Europe’ is a ‘pull factor’ for people on the move. Such a myth needs to be rejected in order that policy-making and wider public debate can move beyond a politics of fear.

Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat highlights the importance of taking into account the journeys and experiences, as well as the understandings, expectations, concerns and demands of people on the move in the formation and implementation of policy initiatives. To date such insights have been largely disregarded. Yet our interviewees send a very clear and powerful message that simply cannot be ignored: deterrent policy initiatives are not working, are not likely to work and are currently set to fail.

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