The Routes Less Travelled: Irregular Migration to the EU

As the EU–Turkey deal comes into effect, the likely result will be the emergence of new migratory routes, or the reactivation of older ones, such as the West African Route, which connects various countries to the Spanish Canary Islands.

Since 2015, Europe has witnessed an unprecedented influx of refugees and irregular migrants from Syria, Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan, among others. According to FRONTEX, the EU’s external border control agency, the number of reported illegal border crossings in 2015 (1.82 million) was six times greater than in 2014 (282,962).

Despite the increasing use of land routes, notably in the Balkans, the seas remain an important entryway to the EU, and EU maritime borders have been under increasing pressure since 2014. In 2015, the UNHCR reported that over 1 million migrants arrived in the EU by sea; since January 2016 over 170,000 used a Mediterranean maritime route to get into Europe

To counter this phenomenon, the EU and some of its member states have increased border and migration control tools. The adoption of the EU–Turkey agreement on the readmission of irregular migrants and the setting up of EU (but also international) naval operations in the Mediterranean, such as EUNAVFOR MED or Operation Triton, are examples of recent measures.

Although it is very likely that migration flows will remain large as the summer approaches, greater control in some of the ‘hot spots’ along EU’s external borders – for example, the maritime border between Turkey and Greece, the Central Mediterranean and the Western Balkans borders – may change the situation, but not necessarily as intended.

Migration and border control policies tend to have a greater impact on displacing migratory itineraries or increasing people-smuggling activities than effectively controlling or stopping migration.

Indeed, as migratory routes are displaced, they tend to become longer and more difficult, which consequently makes migrants’ journeys more dangerous and complicated. In this particular context, there is a greater likelihood that a migrant or refugee will need to rely on people-smugglers at some point in the journey.

In the case of the Greek maritime borders, while some positive outcomes are likely in the short term (notably a decrease in the number of arrivals), in the long term greater border control measures may lead to the displacement of migrant flows to other points along the EU border.

This is primarily due to the capacity of migrants and organised groups that facilitate irregular migration to adapt. Unlike migration and border control authorities, which often need to deal with fragmented and bureaucratic communication channels, migrants and human smugglers have fluid and fast exchanges.

Often well-connected, migrants and people-smugglers remain constantly alert to information about the procedures in use at border crossings, or sudden changes of border control procedures. Regular, long-distance communication (through mobile phones and the internet) from one ’migratory chain’ point to another also keeps them well informed about legal regimes and existing gaps in legislation. As a consequence, migrants and people smugglers have been able to keep track of the easiest frontiers to penetrate.

As the monitoring of the Mediterranean becomes more and more comprehensive, especially along the Turkey–Greece route, it seems reasonable to expect the emergence of other routes or – even more likely – the reactivation of older ones.

The recent (re-)advertising of Turkey-to-Italy boat trips by Turkey-based smugglers only a few days after the entering into force of the EU-Turkey agreement can be seen as the first sign that such adaptation is already underway.

Another – equally traditional – migratory itinerary could also (re)gain momentum in the near future: the so-called ‘Western African route’.

Connecting a number of Western African countries, such as Niger, Nigeria or Mali, and the Spanish Canary Islands, the Western African Route was once known as ‘the busiest irregular entry point for the whole of Europe’. In 2006, when the route was at its busiest, nearly 32,000 Sub-Saharan migrants reached the Canary Islands using fragile fishing boats (‘cayucos’ or ’pateras’) often leaving from Senegal or Mauritania.

The tightening of border control mechanisms, such as the installation of the SIVE (Sistema Integrado de Vigilancia Exterior) maritime surveillance system or the FRONTEX naval Operation Hera, has helped change this pattern considerably. Bilateral agreements signed in 2007 between Spain and Senegal and Mauritania – which also included repatriation of irregular migrants and asylum seekers – also contributed to cutting off migratory flows along the West African route.

Then, as now, migrants adapted to the new situation. As the West African route became more difficult to navigate, those migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa seeking to reach Europe instead began to use the Central Mediterranean route, usually with the support of people smugglers. Their numbers have been increasing year-on-year since 2008. According to FRONTEX, there was an increase of over 970% in the number of migrants using the Central Mediterranean route between 2012 and 2014.

As Mediterranean crossings become more dangerous and less likely to lead to a safe end-point – entry into the EU is not guaranteed – there is a greater risk that the West African route will again be seen by migrants and people smugglers as a reliable alternative.

In reality, a mild but steady increase in the number of arrivals from West Africa can be observed since 2011. After a slight reduction in 2012 (170 arrivals), figures have since risen, with 874 arriving in 2015. These numbers pale in comparison to the situation in the Mediterranean, but should not be overlooked.

There are other indicators suggesting that the West African route could again become a busy migratory route into Europe. The absence of requirements for an entry visa turns a country like Mauritania into an attractive point of departure for refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and Libya.  

Other countries with low maritime border control capacity and a history of high irregular (maritime) migration flows, such as Guinea, Guinea-Bissau or Senegal, could also be increasingly targeted by migrants trying to reach Europe by sea.

Should this trend be confirmed, irregular migration is likely to become the next big maritime security challenge in West Africa, joining piracy, armed robbery and oil bunkering. However, for a region already coping with many security challenges at the same time – including terrorism, civil/ethnic conflicts and organised crime – trying to stop migrants entering the EU may not be considered a top priority.

In the coming months, irregular migration flows along the West African route will require close monitoring and attention from EU authorities. Being aware and proactive will not stop migrants from coming, but could help to avoid another refugee crisis. 




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