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7 March 2016: European Agenda on Migration based on flawed assumptions

by Dr Vicki Squire and Nina Perkowski

In-depth research with refugees and migrants shows that deterrent measures will not resolve the 'crisis'. Research team argues for a new approach that deepens existing human rights and protection commitments.

Today, EU and Turkish leaders meet in Brussels to discuss the implementation of the EU-Turkey Action Plan. The plan was formally activated at the end of November, to facilitate closer cooperation between Turkey and the EU in governing migration. It promises a €3 billion payment by the EU to Turkey to support the country in hosting Syrian refugees under temporary protection mechanisms. This is despite Turkey already hosting close to 2.7 million Syrian refugees, far more than the 580.000 who have reached the EU.

Like the EU Agenda on Migration, the EU-Turkey Action Plan is primarily focused on preventing access to the EU, and returning people to Turkey if deemed not to be “in need of international protection”. The wider Agenda has guided EU policy in response to the ‘crisis’ since May 2015, and includes four pillars: reducing incentives for irregular migration; border management; a strong asylum policy; and a new policy on legal migration. The first three pillars focus on deterring refugees from making the crossing, increasing returns, expanding Frontex’s powers, and initiating new anti-smuggling operations, while the fourth provides routes for limited categories of legal migration.

Our new research shows that deterrent measures are based on flawed assumptions. Many of those migrating across the Mediterranean have fled violence and insecurity, including conflict, extreme poverty, and personal or familial problems that pose a risk to their safety. These experiences occur not only in countries of origin, but also en route, with vulnerabilities cumulating over time. Few have extensive knowledge about EU policies and deterrent measures, and many of those crossing by the central route to Sicily did not even plan to come to the EU. While EU policies rest on the assumption that an unending number of people want to come to the EU, and that deterrent measures are therefore necessary, our research suggests that people are rarely moving with the aim of reaching Europe as an ideal ‘end goal’.

In its first phase, University of Warwick’s Crossing the Mediterranean by Boat project undertakes 1351 in-depth interviews with people who recently arrived by boat in Kos (Greece), Sicily (Italy), and Malta. From September 2015, we have collected many harrowing stories from the men, women, and unaccompanied minors undertaking journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. Finding out more about the experiences and expectations of those migrating is critical to the formulation of effective policy. Unfortunately, however, many European policy-makers seem to be operating on the basis of misplaced and highly problematic assumptions about why people are moving and about what their expectations are in doing so.

Our research findings pose a number of challenges to current responses to the so-called ‘migration crisis’, and present four key proposals as to how policy can be more effective:

  • Replace deterrent border control policies with interventions that address the diverse causes of irregular migration: Our findings challenge the assumption that restrictive measures are effective deterrents of irregular migration, and affirm the need to address diverse migratory causes. We therefore propose that deterrent policies are replaced by interventions that improve livelihoods and educational opportunities across source, neighbouring, and transit regions.
  • Revise migration and protection categories to reflect the multiple reasons that people are on the move: Our findings indicate that current protection mechanisms do not reflect (i) the diverse forms of violence and conflict that people seek to escape, (ii) the multiplicity of sites that people flee and (iii) the fragmented and fluid journeys involved. We therefore propose that the categories of ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration are rejected in favour of diversified categories that are based on a deeper appreciation of international refugee and human rights law, and are more reflective of reality.
  • Open safe and legal routes for migration, and improve reception conditions and facilities: Our findings demonstrate that current Search and Rescue mechanisms do not address the vulnerabilities of those migrating across the central and eastern Mediterranean, and that the relationships between those migrating and those facilitating migration are diverse and often ambiguous. We therefore support calls to open safe and legal routes to the EU and to improve reception conditions and facilities at all arrival points across the EU, to ensure that human rights and international protection obligations are met in full.
  • Improve rights-oriented information campaigns across neighbouring, transit and arrival regions: Our findings indicate that though the level of knowledge about migratory routes differs across arrival sites, new arrivals have little understanding and information on procedural processes and reception conditions either before or after entering the EU. We therefore propose the development of rights- oriented information campaigns that mobilise social networks in order to offer clear and accurate information on admission and asylum processes across neighbouring, transit and arrival regions.

1 Initially, 150 interviews were envisaged. This number was adjusted in light of lower arrivals in Malta in 2015.