At the end of June, European leaders met at the European Union summit in Brussels and reached a tenuous agreement on migration. Notably, they agreed to send migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to voluntary “control centers” across the E.U.; made accepting certain numbers of migrants voluntary rather than mandatory, as had been the case under previous agreements; and funded the creation of additional processing centers in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia.
The compromise is a victory for anti-migrant nationalists within the E.U.
So how will this change in course affect the European refugee crisis? That depends in part on how migrants and refugees themselves will respond. Our research suggests their response will generate challenges, overwhelming the E.U. nations that remain willing to accept refugees.
Here’s how we did our research
To better understand refugees’ concerns, perceptions and behaviors at the height of the European refugee crisis, we aggregated and analyzed over 6,000 in-person interviews, as well as more than 10,000 social media posts.
An NGO, Internews, carried out the in-person interviews. From December 2015 to February 2017, Internews sent refugee liaison officers to formal camps, detention centers and informal settlements in Greece to ask refugees about their experiences and their information gaps. We drew on their complete database to analyze refugees’ concerns.
In addition, we identified dozens of public Facebook groups created by refugees as part of a self-organization initiative and by NGOs working to inform refugees coming into Europe. We added other refugee-specific Facebook groups frequently linked to their posts. Either the group’s name or its ‘about’ section description was used to verify the group was part of the online community looking to help and inform asylum seekers entering Europe. We used the Facebook Graph API to gather the posts of these public social media groups and had a dozen translators of Arabic and Farsi qualitatively code each post along with a host of issue dimensions. A majority of the posts we analyzed were written between January 2015 and June 2017, at the height of the crisis.
We map and visualize this data on Digital Refuge, an interactive website that allows viewers to explore how refugees perceived and reacted to events in real time as the crisis unfolded.
Here’s what we found: Migrants actively respond to European politics. When European countries change policies, displaced people remake their own migration plans. As Europe shifts toward less migrant-friendly asylum procedures, here’s what we can expect migrants to do in response.
1. Expect more human smuggling across borders.
In March 2016, the E.U. and Turkey made a deal to return irregular migrants who entered the E.U. through Turkey without having used the formal asylum application process. In response, migrants looked for information about how to be smuggled across borders at significantly higher rates than they had before the agreement. While we cannot estimate whether rates of smuggling changed, our Facebook data show interest in smuggling surged in late March, because our translators coded all posts for whether they discussed smuggling.
If asylum seekers perceive the current E.U. policy shifts as another migration crackdown, common transit countries will probably see a surge in active smuggling networks over the rest of the summer. This is because of two connected factors. First, our interview data suggest smugglers leverage major policy changes to spread misinformation and stoke asylum seekers’ fears about deportation. In turn, migrants “rush” to cross to northern Europe informally and risking more to do so. As smuggling increases, we may also expect more deaths in the Mediterranean, where 1,443 migrants have already drowned in 2018.
2. Expect asylum seekers to stop engaging with government officials.
Our data indicate past shifts in European asylum policy have sown distrust between migrants and government officials. In our related research, we found many cases in which migrants followed formal asylum procedures until policies changed and then quickly broke off engagement with administrative personnel, fearing deportation.
In response to the new E.U. policies allowing member nations to take fewer migrants, expect asylum seekers who have thus far followed official procedures to instead choose illegal squatting, remaining in countries informally, without official status. These people may be unable to access government help in providing health care, food and shelter — risking their health and well-being. Further, officials may find it harder to distinguish between legal asylum seekers, whom the E.U. must afford a number of legal protections, and economic migrants, whom they may deport.
3. Expect a surge in bureaucratic crises and backlogs in certain E.U. member states.
When E.U. nations were required to accept a certain quota of migrants, our data revealed sharp gaps between migrants’ “dream” destination countries and their actual relocation options. For example, migrants were overwhelmingly more interested in Germany and Sweden than they were in many other E.U. states. Moreover, we coded all Facebook posts and in-person interviews for sentiment and found the average sentiment toward “dream” destinations was relatively high. Migrants were also well aware certain countries were unwelcoming and had imposed barriers to keep out asylum seekers and the average sentiment of posts reflected this discrepancy.
With E.U. migrant quotas eliminated, migrants will probably make a sharper distinction between “friendly” and “unfriendly” countries. Countries that agree to accept migrants will be seen as even more desirable. As a result, these countries may experience sudden refugee influxes that are extremely difficult to manage bureaucratically. Welcoming countries will probably face serious backlogs in their asylum processing, which can sow rumors about corruption and government conspiracies in migrant communities, intensify distrust in officials and fuel smuggling.
Overall, we expect refugee communities to react to recent changes to E.U. migration policy in ways that result in negative feedback cycles that exacerbate the crisis.
Laura Jakli (@laurajakli) is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studies comparative politics and international relations, with a focus on digital politics and political behavior.
Melissa Carlson is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley focusing on the study of humanitarian crisis response, migration, and irregular conflict.
We are grateful to the Carnegie Foundation, to Berkeley’s Miller Center for Global Challenges and the Law, and to CITRIS and the Banatao Institute for their support of this research.