Migration Routes into the European Union

Commentary by Louis VIS and Gabriella ATKINS

If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for’ stated Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, in a speech last month. Europe is facing its biggest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. Whilst the recent increase in the number of migrants heading to Europe was initially met with hostility, recent photographs of a dead Syrian child washed up on the shores of Turkey finally seem to have appealed to the hearts of the European population, and their leaders are following suit. The closing of borders – such as Hungary’s fence – has only highlighted the unstoppable nature of the wave of migrants.  But how are fleeing families and individuals making their way to the European Union (EU)? With no coherent system for legal migration, asylum or refugee routes in Europe, and a lack of alternatives, the smuggling of illegal migrants has become an increasingly profitable business. As a result, four main routes of illegal migration are identifiable: the Spanish route, the Libyan route, the Turkish route and the Balkan route.

The Spanish route:

Main migration routes into the EU - by Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa), Alexrk2, Alex Ireland, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0
Main migration routes into the EU – by Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa), Alexrk2, Alex Ireland, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0

With 9 miles separating Morocco and Spain, and two Spanish enclaves on African soil (Ceuta and Melilla), this route is the fastest way for African migrants to reach the European continent. However, even if the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar is one of the safest ways to reach Europe, an increase in monitoring in the Mediterranean means many are now heading to the Canary Islands 70 miles off the Moroccan Atlantic coast. This longer route across a turbulent sea results in a greater number of risks – such as shipwreck and sinking.

The Libyan route:

Whilst this is the main African route into the EU, it is also the most dangerous. Having negotiated the perils of the Sahara desert via the city of Dirkou to reach Libya, migrants still have to cross to Italy and Lampedusa in Sicily by boat. As we have seen in the media, this long crossing to Italy often results in huge fatalities. Captain smugglers of ships, fearing legal repercussions, opt to abandon their ships upon entering Italian waters and leave them to crash into the coast. Due to its relatively cheap cost, the poorer echelons of African society still have to use this route despite its dangers. Due to the relatively good weather, there was an increase in the number of people using the Libyan route during the spring and summer months, an issue which was the first test of the EU’s ability to respond to rising migrant levels.

The Turkish route:  

As the Syrian war continues and the number of people fleeing Syria increases, this route is now one of the busiest highways into the EU. Even though the majority of refugees remain in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, Istanbul has now become a large ‘waiting room for migrants’ on their way to Europe via the Balkans. However, due to the high cost of the journey and light penalties for smugglers, migrants often face abuse by local Turkish and Albanian gangs. Local gangs along this route often give out loans to migrants before enslaving them until debts are repaid. As a result, many migrants are forced to remain in Turkey in conditions little better than those they left, albeit without the threat of major warfare. In the current power vacuum, as the popularity of this route increases, so will its potential for human trafficking.

The Balkan route:

A legacy of the Balkan war, the Balkan route is now a continuation of the Turkish route for many migrants. Bosnia and Serbia are the last stop before Europe for many Kurdish, Syrian, Iranian and Asian migrants. Their journey is facilitated by the fact that several Balkan countries offer free visas to tourists. This results in ‘false-tourism’, where migrants enter the country as tourists but leave for Europe upon their arrival. Migrants have a choice of over 400 crossing points out of Bosnia into neighbouring Italy, Austria (via Croatia), Hungary or Slovenia. Of these 400 routes – composed of both overland and tunnels – only four are controlled. Alternatively migrants also travel via Albania or Croatia to cross the Adriatic to Italy from Vlore or Split in small boats. Many of these smuggling routes have gained popularity because they provide the most direct ways to enter the EU from Syria. However these routes are also easier to use due to endemic corruption in the Balkan countries. Indeed, migrant smuggling is worth £70 million in Bosnia alone and £4 billion globally, and until a higher authority than the Balkan police and political elite decide to take action, little will be done to change this.

Syrian Refugees at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, by Chernov licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Syrian Refugees at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, by Chernov licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Refugees trying to enter Europe have had to negotiate smugglers, traffickers, turbulent seas and perilous treks to name but a few of the dangers – a simple fence or border control is not going to prevent them from fleeing a life where little other than death or dire poverty awaits. Trying to deter or prevent migrants from entering the EU is therefore no answer to the current crisis. Unless we want to be remembered in history books ‘as xenophobic rich cowards behind fences‘, leaders of all 28 European Member States and global powers should join forces to find a coherent, common and viable way to deal with the refugee crisis. Not only would this solve a world humanitarian crisis but it could even be a boost to our own demographic and economic problems. In the words of Professor Paul De Grauwe from the London School of Economics, this refugee crisis represents a ‘Golden Opportunity’ for Europe, so why wait any longer?

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