1. Are we witnessing an unprecedented “refugee crisis” in Europe?
Yes and no. Rather than just reacting to immediate events, it is useful to look at statistics and to refresh our memory of geopolitics and history.
West European states have experienced two peaks in demand for asylum since the end of the Cold War: once in the early 1990s and once in the 2000s. In 1992, after the war in what was then Yugoslavia, claims for asylum in Europe reached 700,000, most lodged in Germany.
Between 1999 and 2003, asylum claims increased to a 400,000 yearly average, including many Kosovars. France and Britain were the top destinations. In addition to people from the Balkans, many refugees were fleeing Afghanistan and Congo.
When the number of asylum claims falls below these peaks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are fewer refugees who need asylum. Instead, it has usually meant that refugees did not make it to Europe, instead staying in UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) camps next to their home countries. One important recent example are refugees in the Great Lakes region of Africa after the genocide in Rwanda.
2. Why do people fleeing conflict resort to paying smugglers and taking dangerous sea and land routes?
West European states started implementing measures to prevent asylum-seekers from arriving on their territory in the 1980s, including requiring people crossing their borders to have passports with proper visas and requiring transportation companies to verify those documents.
This posed obvious problems for many refugees fleeing persecution. For example, a person belonging to the Kurdish minority fleeing Turkey was unlikely to be able to obtain a passport from the Turkish military regime at the time or to be allowed to board a plane by non-Kurdish airport personnel.
This policy requiring visas for short-term stays and sanctioning carriers that brought people without documentation became an E.U.-wide policy in 1999. If you didn’t have the right documents and wanted to reach a particular destination in Western or Northern Europe, you had to find an illegal route, which often involved paying a smuggler.
In 1999, for instance, those fleeing the war in Kosovo who did not want to stay in makeshift camps had to pay about $5,000 to get to Europe to apply for asylum. Those wanting to go to Britain were stuck in the French port town of Calais, which was an external border within the E.U., because Britain was not part of the Schengen arrangement under which most European states cooperated over border control. This meant that the refugees had to pay again if they wanted to cross the English Channel. Crossing that border meant hiding in the back of a truck or somehow getting on an electrified high-speed train. Even today, would-be refugees from Somalia or Afghanistan pay local hoodlums to help them do this.
Smuggling is based on basic economic laws of supply and demand. The demand is obvious. On the supply end, during the Arab Spring, Tunisian fishermen who could not make ends meet sold their boats for a small fee to persons whose “customers” wanted to make it north.
3. Why are people dying at sea trying to get to Europe?
Staring in the 2000s, European states also set up maritime military operations in the Mediterranean and Adriatric seas. Since 2005, operations supervised by the E.U.’s Frontex agency, which administers common European arrangements over border control, have increased. Some routes have become less traveled as a result, shifting the usual entry points to the east. Few boats now go to the Canary Islands or brave the Gibraltar Straits. Smugglers prefer other passages to Europe, through Turkey or Greece. Many people now try to cross from Libya to Lampedusa, an island south of Italy, because there is less supervision of the Libyan coast.
4. Where do most refugees end up?
More than 80 percent of people fleeing conflict end up in neighboring countries. In some cases of mass displacement, such as Somalia, populations live in large camps run by the UNHCR, which grants them refugee status. This is also true for the nationalities most likely to seek asylum in Europe — Syrians and Afghanis.
Syrians were the most common nationality to seek asylum in Europe in 2014. However, far more Syrians have fled to nearby Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey without making asylum claims than have fled to Europe. Lebanon, a country of about 4.5 million, now hosts 1.5 million Syrians.
Afghans make up the second-highest number among asylum seekers in Europe. Yet Europe has expelled tens of thousands of Afghans, sending them back to live in UNHCR camps around Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2003. Pakistan still hosts the most Afghan refugees: 2 million.
5. Where do people fleeing conflict to Europe want to go?
A small proportion of Syrians and others from war-ridden countries such as Eritrea make it to European borders. As theories of migration argue, these people are not passive victims. Instead, they are people who believe that the benefits outweigh the costs of the perilous voyage, because they have the means to pay for it, and because they have family members or communities in their countries of destination who have the right language skills and can help them find housing and jobs.
People want to go to Britain despite public hostility toward refugees and unwelcoming policies because they have kinship networks, know English and have professional skills that will help them integrate into the labor market. People aren’t going to Sweden because they like cold weather. They are going because Sweden has been welcoming in the past and, thus, hosts a large number of populations from the Middle East and northern Africa.
This is the first of two posts. The second post will cover the politics of migration.
Virginie Guiraudon is research professor at the National Center for Scientific Research at the Center for European Studies.