Democracy Dies in Darkness

Europe

The mysterious drop in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean

September 1, 2017 at 3:00 AM

A wooden boat carrying migrants approaches rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, about 46 miles north of the Libyan coast, early Wednesday. (Darko Bandic/AP)

As European leaders continue their push to curb a seemingly constant flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, it appears that flow could be leveling off — at least temporarily.

On Tuesday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations' migration agency, published data on recent arrivals in Europe. The figures took experts and analysts by surprise: Compared with the 273,000 migrants who landed from January through Aug. 27, 2016, about 121,000 arrived during the same period this year. Furthermore, there was no evidence of any migrant dying in the Mediterranean since Aug. 9.

The summer months — when waters are warmer and travel conditions are more auspicious — typically preside over spikes in the numbers of migrants and asylum seekers who make the often-dangerous journey to Europe. In the past, the increase in traffic usually has been accompanied by an increase in fatalities en route, mostly to do with capsized boats and the lack of safety precautions taken by people-smugglers.

Not so in August 2017, the data suggests. While the dearth of fatalities last month does not follow the figures for the rest of the year to date — during which more than 2,400 migrants died in the Mediterranean — these recent figures do suggest that the terms of a scenario that has long confounded European politicians may be changing.

Experts were quick to caution against any single explanation for the dip in arrivals and in fatalities.

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The Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan explains what migrants attempting to travel to Europe face when the Libyan Coast Guard takes them in. (Jason Aldag, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

"It's hard to say," said Elizabeth Collett, the founding director of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a leading Brussels-based think tank on the issue. "We're essentially looking at a month's worth of a data — that doesn't tell us much about a longer-term trend."

The temporary decline in numbers, Collett added, could be a function of any number of factors, including a recently revamped Libyan coast guard or changes in border operations in Niger, which traditionally has been a starting point for many migrants en route to Libya and then Europe.

She also said a network of militias on the ground in Libya — which typically has helped human trafficking in the past — appears to be working in conjunction with the country's transitional government to keep migrants in place, a deal apparently backed by the Italian government. The Associated Press, citing Libyan militia and security officials, reported this week that the Libyan government has paid militias for these activities.

The Italian Interior Ministry reported last month that the country has seen a major decrease in the number of incoming migrants. About 4,000 migrants have arrived since mid-July, a figure that represents about 20 percent of the incoming crowds processed during the same period in 2016, 2015 and 2014.

"The scale of the [migrant] flows is dependent on the goodwill of small armed groups being willing to cooperate. This suggests we're now reliant on small groups who see more profit in working with the transitional government and European governments," Collett said. "But that also puts the emphasis on power dynamics in the region."

Those dynamics, said Marco Funk, a migration specialist at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank, are anything but set in stone and could change quickly.

"Those militias are looking for a benefit wherever they can find one," he said. "I question how sustainable this dip is. I don't expect it to be a long-term decline."

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Video shows a dinghy carrying dozens of migrants landing in the middle of a beach in Zahara de los Atunes on Aug. 9. (Reuters)

Related: [Can Africa thwart the next migration crisis? European leaders think so.]

The IOM report came a day after seven European and African leaders met in Paris to address the ongoing migration crisis, with European leaders urging their African counterparts to step up efforts to stem the flow.

Hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, the leaders of Germany, Italy and Spain met with their counterparts from Chad, Niger and Libya — the nations that make up the most common migrant route into Europe, most frequently onto Italian shores.

In general, the Europeans pledged significant developmental aid for these African nations, which often have served as transit points for migrants fleeing poverty and persecution. By stimulating job growth on the other side of the Mediterranean, European leaders hope fewer migrants will feel compelled to make the journey.

Another goal of the Paris meeting was that tightened border controls along this African migration route, as well as "hot spots" or reception centers, be established along the way. The idea behind these centers — long espoused by Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — is to process the asylum claims of migrants and refugees before they come to Europe, instead of after they arrive.

While early forms of some of these proposals already have been put in place, analysts doubt their continued efficacy, noting that determined migrants will continue to find ways into Europe along other routes.

This was the case last year when the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece was closed, Funk said. Migrants then began using the central Mediterranean route that European leaders now are policing. There is evidence that a popular route could materialize in the western Mediterranean, with Spain a destination instead of Italy, he said.

According to IOM data, about three times as many migrants arrived by sea in Spain through August 2017 as arrived through August 2016. Joel Millman, a spokesman for the IOM, told the Agence France-Presse news agency last month that the pivot toward the Iberian Peninsula is probably "due to the fact that the route is considered a safe route."

In Paris on Monday, Macron was quick to praise the Italian government's oversight of the Libyan coast guard. "What's been done by Italy and Libya is a perfect example of what we are shooting for," he said.

But migration experts insisted that the latest statistics do not indicate that a tenable solution has been found.

"In terms of policymaking, it means that European leaders can definitely not sit back and say the worst is over — quite the opposite," Funk said. "The root causes of this phenomenon are as present as ever, and the search for solutions should continue."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported on International Organization for Migration figures for August 2016 and August 2017. In fact, those figures were for January through August 27, 2016, and the same period in 2017. Similarly, the previous version reported that figures for Spain were for August 2016 and August 2017. In fact, those figures were for January through August 2016 and the corresponding period in 2017.

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Related: Top French court orders government to offer humanitarian aid to Calais migrants

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Related: Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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James McAuley is Paris correspondent for The Washington Post. He holds a PhD in French history from the University of Oxford, where he was a Marshall Scholar.

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