Can Europe Make It?

Missing the boat: Europe's asylum and immigration crisis

While there are no quick and easy answers to Europe’s asylum and migration dilemma, there are some constructive steps that could be taken.

Jeff Crisp
4 November 2013

North African migrants arriving in Sicily. Wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved.


North African migrants arriving in Sicily. Wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved.

Just four or five years ago, the countries of the European Union (EU) felt that they were beginning to assert some control over the unwanted arrival of refugees and asylum seekers from other parts of the world. Having peaked at 670,000 in 1992, the number of asylum applications submitted in the EU fell rapidly in successive years, slumping to just 200,000 in 2006.

During the same period, the number of unsuccessful asylum seekers and other irregular migrants being sent back to their country of origin increased. The UK, for example, deported over 40,000 people in 2011, a 46 per cent increase on the 2004 figure.     

Border controls

Europe’s growing control over asylum and irregular migration was also manifested in other ways. In 2005, the EU established FRONTEX, a body responsible for coordinating the border control activities of member states. One of the first FRONTEX operations was designed to shut down the maritime migratory route from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands.

It met with considerable success in achieving that objective. In 2006, more than 31,000 irregular migrants disembarked in the Canary Islands. By 2009, that figure had been reduced to just over 2,000. It was, FRONTEX proudly announced, “an astounding achievement in dealing with irregular immigration in the Atlantic.”

Action was also being taken at the bilateral level to limit the arrival of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Europe. In 2008, for example, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya struck a deal that enabled Italy to turn back boats departing from Libya without allowing the passengers to have their asylum claims considered. The year after the Rome-Tripoli accord was signed, the number of people arriving in Italy by boat fell by 75 per cent.

Dramatic change

Since the beginning of the current decade, however, the European migration scenario has changed dramatically, confounding earlier assumptions that states were beginning to get to grips with the arrival of unwanted arrivals.   

The rot started in Greece, which in 2010 witnessed a sudden upsurge in the number of people arriving in the country by irregular means, primarily from Afghanistan, Algeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Iraq. In January 2011, FRONTEX reported that 38,000 undocumented travelers had crossed the country’s eastern border in the previous six months.

Coinciding with the growing Greek financial crisis, the influx threw the country’s weak asylum and migration systems into complete disarray and sparked a humanitarian crisis. Large numbers of new arrivals, including pregnant women and families, were held in cramped detention centers and police stations, while others found themselves sleeping on the streets.

Responding to this situation, the United Nations observed that “the refugee status determination system in Greece does not operate properly. As a result, people needing international protection are not identified as such. This is a situation which should not exist in the European Union.”

Arab spring

In the past two years, the EU’s system of asylum and migration management has unraveled even further. The Arab Spring in Tunisia prompted more than 30,000 people to move across the Mediterranean by boat, the majority of them arriving in Italy. In April 2011, France closed its border with Italy to prevent the onward movement of the new arrivals, a decision which the latter country described as being "illegitimate and a clear violation of European principles."

The armed conflict in Libya and demise of the Gaddafi regime has had even more serious implications for asylum and migration in Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration, 800,000 foreign nationals, including migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers fled the country in 2011, but less than four per cent of this number succeeded in reaching Italy and Malta.   

Since that time, however, the continuing chaos in Libya has effectively undermined the system of migration controls imposed at the time of the Berlusconi-Gaddafi accord. The country has become the hotbed of an exploitative human smuggling industry, designed primarily to channel people from the Horn of Africa and other parts of the continent across the Mediterranean.


A large proportion of these people have been Eritreans, escaping from military conscription and human rights abuses in their homeland. Previously, most refugees and asylum seekers had left Eritrea by way of Sudan and Egypt, eventually crossing the Sinai desert into Israel.

But at the beginning of 2013, the government in Tel Aviv completed the construction of a $400 million border fence with Egypt, obliging those Eritreans who wished to leave their country to opt for the Libyan route. Most of the 350 people who drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa in early October 2013 came from Eritrea.        

This tragedy seems unlikely to be the last of its type. Boat departures from Libya continue unabated (they normally come to a halt at this time of year), with the deterioration of the political situation in Libya allowing the human smugglers to ply their trade with impunity.

Getting out

To make the situation worse, the Syrian conflict shows no sign of coming to an end, and growing numbers of people from that country are now trying to find a way into Europe, travelling by way of Libya, Egypt or Turkey.

And according to a New York Times report (22 October 2013), growing numbers of Egyptians are may leave the country in the near future, exhausted by the violence and political turmoil that the country has experienced in recent months.

Europe’s asylum and migration crisis is becoming increasingly visible. The drowning of so many people at Lampedusa appears to have shocked even those politicians and media outlets that have campaigned for years for tougher policies on undocumented arrivals.

In Milan, Syrian asylum seekers are camped out in the city’s main railway station. In Bulgaria, a growing number of refugees and asylum seekers are being accommodated in conditions that the UN refugee agency has described as held in "sickening, disgusting and inhumane." In Calais, Syrians are staging sit-in, hunger strikes and are even threatening to kill themselves if they are not allowed to cross the Channel into the UK.

Constructive steps

So what can the EU and its member states do to address this crisis? The temptation will be to clamp down on the arrival of refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants by introducing more restrictions on travel, establishing stronger border controls, undertaking more surveillance and signing new repatriation agreements with transit countries.  

But this would be a mistaken approach in many respects. It would violate the right to seek and enjoy asylum in another state. It would place additional pressures on those countries that are least equipped to deal with the influx. And it would send a very negative message to Jordan, Lebanon. Turkey and Iraq, countries which are struggling to support more than two million Syrian refugees.

While there are no quick and easy answers to Europe’s asylum and migration dilemma, there are some constructive steps that could be taken.

First, the region should keep its borders open, ensuring that people from refugee-producing countries such as Syria, Eritrea and Somalia have access to the territory of the EU, as well as to fair and thorough asylum procedures. Asylum seekers who arrive without the necessary identity and travel documents should not be penalized.

Second, Europe should provide generous humanitarian and development support to those countries which are bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, thereby alleviating the pressure on such states and making it possible for refugees to remain there, rather than undertaking highly risky journeys to more distant destinations.

Third, an effort should be made to provide asylum seekers with safe and legal ways of entering the EU and enabling them to remain there for as long as they are in need of protection. This could include the establishment of humanitarian admission and refugee resettlement programs, simplified visa and family reunion procedures, as well as the provision of labour migration opportunities.

Fourth, concerted action is required to prevent the exploitation of refugees and asylum seekers by unscrupulous human smugglers. Even if this has the effect of closing one of the few means by which they can enter Europe, it was also prevent many desperate people from losing their money and their lives in the process. At the same time, more vigorous efforts are required to inform prospective asylum seekers of the risks that they run when they place themselves in the hands of individuals and gangs who are motivated only by profit.

Finally, the countries of Europe, which generally enjoy high levels of democracy, human rights, stability and prosperity, must use every asset their disposal to ensure that people in other countries are able to benefit from the same conditions. Leaving your own country should always be a choice and never a necessity.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData