Research Brief 03: Boat migration across the Central Mediterranean

Research Brief 03: Boat migration across the Central Mediterranean

Our third Research Brief presents some of our findings in relation to the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy and Malta, exploring the dynamics of migration before, during and after the sea crossing as well as local, national and European Union (EU) policy responses.

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Summary

In this Brief we show how although migration across the Mediterranean Sea is not a new phenomenon, there has recently been a dramatic increase in the scale of migration flows, accompanied by a significant changes in the governance of migration and border controls in the region.

In 2011 and especially during 2014 and 2015 migration flows across the Central Mediterranean greatly increased. Libya was, and continues today to be, by far the main country of departure. As well as people travelling to Europe, patterns of forced and labour migration which have for years seen people move to Libya from Eastern and sub-Saharan Africa continue. However, due to the context of violence and insecurity there, they end up boarding the boats and heading out to sea.

The migration flow across the Central Mediterranean route is diverse in many ways. It is composed of an array of nationalities and ethnicities, who have usually travelled through various countries over a period of months or years before arriving in Europe. What is often considered a homogeneous migration flow across the sea should in reality, therefore, be seen as a series of sub-flows that converge in Libya. This diversity and complexity of motivations and experiences provides a challenge for the reception system in Italy and the rest of Europe.

Although policy responses and public opinion have often presented a binary categorisation between forced and economic migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, our research highlights varying ways that the drivers of migration are complex and intersect with one another. Security, economic and personal motivations for leaving a place of origin or for getting on a boat to Europe are often not mutually exclusive.

This complicates the process of determining the legal status and asylum applications of people arriving in Europe, as international protection should be dependent on the individual’s experience rather than their nationality.

The governance of migration across the Central Mediterranean has also undergone significant changes, particularly in relation to the shifting role of the EU and its Member States at Italy’s borders.

Sea interceptions of migrant boats have de facto stopped almost all spontaneous arrivals on Italian and Maltese shores, creating an impression of control and order in the governance of the crisis. Yet at the same time deficiencies in the reception system, arbitrary decision-making and the efforts of migrants and refugees to transit out of Italy have contributed to an unpredictable situation of widespread production of irregular migration and settlement. In this context, the establishment of hotspots and the failure of the refugee relocation programme are symbols of a stuttering attempt to Europeanise the governance of migration across the Central Mediterranean.

Today, migrants and refugees are being increasingly contained in Italy. This is despite the fact, highlighted in our interviews, that many of those making the crossing did not intend to move to or stay in Italy when they set out from their place of origin or even when they boarded the boats in Libya. The outcome is a reception system for refugees and migrants which struggles to catch up with the reality as it plays out on the ground.