The “Migration Crisis” in Europe: An Interpretation

22.06.2017 , in ((Politics)) , ((No Comments))

Since 2015, the term “migration crisis” has appeared in the media almost on a daily basis. Why now and not back in the 1990’s when comparable numbers of asylum requests were lodged in Europe? Many parameters are indeed very different today than in past episodes of refugee arrivals. In 2015, refugees moved in large numbers over large distances, from the South to the North, and they had to risk their lives to do so. The lack of political coherence in Europe when coping with these arrivals nearly led to a breakdown of the entire EU. However, it is not only a “crisis” of politics, but also of numbers, distance and rights. What are its fundamentals?

I use the term “crisis” to refer to the fact that, in recent years, an unprecedented number of people risked their lives to reach Europe – and to a lesser extent other regions of the world. Further, I use the term unprecedented on purpose. Although we know that at the beginning of the 1990’s the number of asylum requests lodged in Europe was of a similar magnitude, I contend that the circumstances were different. A large number of those asylum seekers were East-Europeans fleeing – without risking their lives – the uncertainties of the fall of the iron-curtain. Many of them – and this also holds true for the victims of the civil wars in former Yugoslavia – had to go back soon after their arrival in Europe. By contrast, in 2015 refugees moved spontaneously, in large numbers, and over large distances, from the South to the North and these moves led to a major crisis of European politics – even if we should keep in mind that the vast majority of refugees are still hosted by Southern countries. Most of all, the term “crisis” is justified, because people are dying every day on the shores of Europe without an adequate policy response.

Thus, as there is a crisis, I want to understand its fundamentals: What made so many people land in Europe? A first explanation is obvious, but needs to be put to the forefront, as it probably is the most important one: the prevalence of violence, or more generally, of existential threats on the life of human beings worldwide. It is important to brush aside the popular idea of a crisis, which is driven mainly by the mix of a minority of “true” refugees with a majority of “economic migrants” who are not in need of protection. To describe it as a desperate search for bare life by a rapidly growing number of men, women and children does not suffice to explain why hundreds of thousands of people risk their lives to reach Europe.

Violence is Not New

In 1967, just as the protocol to enlarge the 1951 Refugee Convention to the non-European world was signed, two million people were displaced by war and famine in Biafra (Nigeria). Of these very few tried to reach Europe. Even as the number of refugees reached a historic high in the early 1990s – due to wars in Africa, Iraq, and elsewhere – relatively few refugees attempted long distance displacements. This holds of course true for the situation today as well with the share of refugees being a whole lot higher in poorer countries. Thus, in addition to violence in the countries of origin, there must be other causes of this change in migration patterns of refugees. I locate them in four areas: connectivity, distanciation, territory, and solidarity.


Areas affected by violence are much more connected to possible asylum destinations today than 50 years ago. Four triggers can be singled out:

  • The first is information. In the Zaatari camp, Jordan, about 86% of the young Syrians owned a mobile phone in 2015 and 50% of them went online daily. During the same period, an app was made available to follow the situation at the check-points at the Serbian border for those attempting to enter the EU.
  • The second is the fact that – despite increasing inequalities in the world – the number of people who is able to collect or borrow a few thousand dollars to escape is on the rise. Those who are fleeing are often in desperate situations; but they have more resources than in Biafra in the 1960’s.
  • A third trigger is the reduction of exit controls by governments, contrary to what was common at the time of the cold war. Far from being ashamed of defectors, some countries, such as Eritrea, now simply raise a tax on expatriates.
  • Finally, professional smuggler networks – sometime criminal but most often not – take advantage of and reinforce the connectivity of the forced migration landscape.

Obviously, Western governments are frantically trying to fight against these trends. They are building fences and militarizing borders trying to deter and contain.


One reason why, in the past, most refugees stayed close to their region of origin, was that they were prevented to leave by an implicit deal between the North and the South. Southern countries admitted refugees to their territory and provided land, on which they could live and farm, while western donor states provided the funding that was required to feed, shelter, educate and provide health care to these exiled populations. This deal also implied the resettlement of refugees. Although the will to contain is still there and although the large majority of refugees are still contained, two central components of the deal have changed during the last decades.

First, resettlement diminished or at least failed to cope with the increase in absolute numbers of refugees. Second, donors failed to meet their financial obligations to assist refugees on site. For example, in 2015, near the Syrian border, the UNHCR was dangerously low on funding and was barely able to satisfy the most basic survival needs of millions of people. What happened was indeed terrible suffering for Syrian refugees but also… the migration crisis in Europe. Unable to survive in camps, refugees attempted to reach Europe, while Europe quickly attempted to recreate distanciation and containment by setting up a much worse deal… the deal with Turkey.

Territory and Solidarity

The attitude of receiving states is central to understanding the displacements of refugees. I contend that this attitude – the solidarity with the suffering of the refugees – is more than ever territorially asymmetric, as asylum is only accessible to those who manage to enter the territory of the country of destination. For example, most countries abolished the possibility to file an asylum application at their embassies and visa policies were tightened.

But simultaneously – and I know this will be more controversial – I contend that, while solidarity abroad diminished, de facto solidarity within many asylum countries increased despite the growing anti-refugee rhetoric in public discourse. In the last decades, we have witnessed a process of humanitarianization, judicialization and depolitization of asylum. In many developed countries, material reception conditions have improved and the definition of what constitutes protection needs has widened. Non-refoulement is far from being respected everywhere but legally accepted much more solidly than ever; even at the border. Forced removals are violent and tragic, but they concern a minority of asylum-seekers. Indeed, protections rates have been rather high in recent years.

There is a tension here because States simultaneously attempt to deter, prevent access, and deport. All this means that the territorial asymmetry of solidarity has widened. If a refugee manages to survive long enough to be rescued outside the territorial waters of Libya, he or she will be disembarked in Italy and the chances of being protected will improve. If refugees stay in Libya or elsewhere, they will be ignored.

Taken together these lines of explanations converge to better explain why a growing number of people put all their hopes in a journey to Europe.

Etienne Piguet
Project Leader, nccr – on the move, University of Neuchatel

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