According to the European Commission, as of January 1st 2019 there were 34.2 million people in the EU who had been born outside of it, with 20.9 million non-citizen residents (out of a total EU population of 446.8 million). Many of these non-citizen residents had arrived during the migration crisis in the preceding four years, but others have been in the EU for years or decades. What most have in common regardless of arrival date is home countries where security, economic growth, or both are severely lacking. Analyzing where migrants arrived from during the crisis years is key to picking apart the push-pull factors that led to millions making a perilous journey for uncertain reward.
Where are they coming from?
As can be seen in the above graph, the overwhelming share of asylum applications in 2015-as the crisis began to truly kick off-were from Middle Eastern countries riven by war. The Syrian Civil War has created a massive number of displaced, threatened persons in a region already scarred by decades of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq (to say nothing of more recent conflagrations like that in Yemen). Asylum applicants are generally fleeing-or claim to be fleeing-a combination of insecurity, economic hardship, and often sectarian or ethnic conflict. These overlapping bases for claims-to say nothing of the panoply of languages, cultures, and faiths represented among asylum seekers in Europe-make honest adjudication difficult in the best of conditions, but matters were further complicated during the height of the crisis by EU laws regarding asylum claims.
The Dublin Regulation
Asylum applications in the EU are governed by the Dublin Regulation. The current regime (known as Dublin III) has been in place since July 2013, and dictates a common set of rules and procedures around asylum claims for all signatories. The key component of the Dublin Regulation as it applies to the European migrant crisis is its ruling on where asylum claims must be lodged: in the first signatory country an applicant reaches. In other words, anyone whose boat lands in Greece must file for asylum in Greece. On the face of it a fairly simple rule, the main effect of the Dublin Regulation during the crisis was to massively overburden littoral states in southern Europe, specifically Italy & Greece, while shielding inland or northern European countries from having to accept applicants.
Beyond the issue of southern Europe having been hit much harder by the 2008-2009 global recession, this created a massive negative feedback loop: the more applicants entered Europe, the less willing other countries became to take a share of asylum applicants. Given that many if not a majority of those who had made the journey were specifically seeking a home farther north-Germany, France, and the UK being popular destinations for language and economic reasons-this led to a situation wherein southern states were being forced to hold applicants who didn’t want to be there either. While some member-states like Germany did choose to take a larger quota of migrants than they were obligated to under EU law, many others happily waved through or otherwise refused to take on any of them.
What to do?
EU members-individually and collectively-have taken various actions to stem the flow of migrants and to begin integrating those lucky few who have successfully applied for asylum. Individual tactics have included creating hostile environments to help push out illicit migrants, strong linguistic requirements for would-be new residents, and stronger policing of sea borders. Collectively, the EU has worked with Turkey to stem the transit of migrants by land, while operating more aggressively in the Mediterranean to stop smugglers and traffickers from carrying people to Europe.
While these tactics have worked to effect a steep drop-off in migrant and asylum application numbers, their continuing efficacy is questionable. Should another conflict the at a scale similar to the Syrian Civil War break out near Europe-or if the generally parlous state of Turkish-EU relations further deteriorate-the EU could well face another similar crisis in the near future.
-In 2019, over 200,000 people under the age of 18 applied for protection in the EU. Included in that 200,000 were 14,000 applicants under the age of 18 who arrived in Europe unaccompanied by a parent or guardian
-EU member states granted some form of protection to 300,000 asylum seekers in the same year
-At the end of 2019, there were 929,000 pending asylum claims in the EU (down slightly from the prior year)
-Between 2014 and 2019, there were a total of 16,500 recorded migrant deaths during Mediterranean crossings.
-So far, 700 deaths in Mediterranean crossings have been reported in 2020
European Commission: Statistics on migration to Europe
Missing Migrants: Tracking Death Along Migratory Routes (via the International Organization for Migration)
Charts courtesy of the BBC: Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts