Research Brief 01: Unpacking a Rapidly Changing Scenario

Research Brief 01: Unpacking a Rapidly Changing Scenario

This first Research Brief presents some initial considerations of our fieldwork, focusing in particular on migration flows, routes and trajectories across the Mediterranean.


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In 2015 over one million people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in search of safety and a better life. Thousands died along the way. The MEDMIG project seeks to better understand these unprecedented movements in the region by examining the journeys, motivations and aspirations of refugees and migrants in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Malta.

2015 marked the sharpest rise in sea arrivals to the EU with a four-fold increase from 2014. Significant differences developed in the magnitude and composition of the flows along the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes. There was a dramatic increase in the numbers of people moving through the Eastern Mediterranean into Greece but little change from 2014 on the Central Mediterranean route to Italy.

The composition of flows also changed considerably, most notably the rapid decline in the arrival of Syrians into Italy who went from 24% of arrivals in 2014 to just 5% in 2015. This contrasts with Greece where Syrians made up 56% of all sea arrivals. The rate or deaths or missing people (number of deaths or missing per 1000 people) in the Mediterranean fell significantly in 2015 when compared with the preceding year too.

Copyright MEDMIG Project

The migration of single family members through the Central Mediterranean route contrasts sharply with the increase in migration of families crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece. Within our sample of 500 refugees and migrants the proportion of people travelling with their children was significantly higher on the Eastern Mediterranean compared with the Central Mediterranean route.

Two thirds of our respondents had a secondary school or university education. For those arriving in Greece the level rose to 78%, of whom a third had a university education. Nearly three quarters (72%) of people were in employment before making the journey to Europe, and it is of particular note that the proportion is significantly higher among those arriving in Greece (87%) than those arriving in Italy (60%).

Although the increase in the scale of flows during 2015 was partly tied to the deteriorating situation in Syria, it should be remembered that the drivers of migration to Europe are complex and multi-faceted. 84% of sea arrivals in 2015 came from the world’s top 10 ‘refugee producing countries’, with Syrian nationals representing just over 50%. This means that the so-called ‘migration crisis’ can be more accurately described as a crisis of refugee protection.

Our emerging findings also challenge ideas about the relationship between so-called ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors which underpin many of the responses to increased migration. Within our sample, mixed motivations were an important feature of individual migrant journeys. At the same time, changes to migration policies and increased border controls have led to protracted and fragmented journeys and made it increasingly difficult for people to safely and legally access protection and employment. Refugees and migrants that we spoke with had only partial information about migration policies, and their decisions about where to go were often made along the route.

Migration across the Mediterranean in 2015 has conventionally been perceived as one coherent flow. This is challenged by our emerging findings which indicate that both the nature of migration patterns and their magnitude are the product of a merging of several flows.

Migration into Europe during 2015 was made up of distinct ‘sub-flows’ from many countries and regions and included individuals with diverse trajectories. These flows merged in Turkey and Libya, and it is this merging which partly explains the magnitude and continuation over time of the migration crisis. People’s migration trajectories were varied. Many people had previously been displaced or had been migrating for long periods of time, and these longer trajectories are important to understand the dynamics of migration into and through Europe.

There have been policy failures in response to the movement of people across the Mediterranean. This is in part due to weaknesses of implementation, but policy failures also reflect flawed assumptions about the reasons why people move, the factors that shape their longer-term migration trajectories and their journeys to Europe. The vast majority of people have migrated to Europe because they believed that their lives were in danger and/or that there was no future for themselves (and their children) in countries of origin and transit.

Deterrence policies without access to protection, resettlement or humanitarian assistance will simply drive demand for the services of smugglers who can facilitate access and will push people into taking ever more risky routes into and within Europe. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that search and rescue operations create a so-called ‘pull effect’. Nuanced, tailored and targeted policy responses should be developed which reflect these diverse, stratified and increasingly complex flows.