The growing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing turmoil in Africa and the Middle East poses complex challenges for European policymakers still grappling with weak economic growth and fractured national politics. Europe, according to a 2014 report from the International Organization for Migration, is currently the most dangerous destination for irregular migration in the world, and the Mediterranean Sea the world's most dangerous border crossing. To date, the European Union's collective response to its growing migrant crisis has been ad hoc and, critics charge, more focused on securing the bloc's borders than on protecting the rights of migrants and refugees. With nationalist parties ascendant in many member states and concerns about Islamic terrorism looming large across the continent, it remains unclear if political headwinds will facilitate a new climate of immigration reform.
Where do these migrants and refugees come from?
Political upheaval in the Middle East and across Africa is reshaping migration trends in Europe. The number of illegal border-crossing detections in the EU surged in 2011, as thousands of Tunisians started to arrive at the Italian island of Lampedusa, seventy miles from Tunisia, following the onset of the Arab Spring. Sub-Saharan Africans who had previously migrated to Libya followed in 2011-2012, fleeing unrest in the post-Qaddafi era. The most recent surge in detections along the EU's maritime borders has been attributed to the growing numbers of Syrian and Eritrean refugees.
Graphic courtesy of Reuters
According to European Commission statistics, the EU received approximately 626,000 applications for international protection in 2014, the highest number of asylum applicants within the bloc since 1992.
Illegal border crossings most often fall along several major routes spanning the southern and eastern borders of Europe. The central Mediterranean passage, with Italy serving as the main entry point to Europe, is currently the most frequented for migrants and asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Egypt, and Somalia. Deteriorating security in Libya, Central African Republic, and South Sudan are also seen as contributing factors to the migrant influx.
Making a distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants is not always clear-cut, even though these groups are entitled to different levels of assistance and protection under international law. This gray area is frequently exacerbated by the inconsistent methods with which asylum applications are often processed across the EU's twenty-eight member states.
Which EU member states have been hardest hit by the crisis?
EU member states hardest hit by the economic crisis - Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain - have also served as the main points of entry for migrants and refugees because of their proximity to the Mediterranean Basin.
In 2008, the Eastern Mediterranean route saw a sharp spike in irregular migration, and by 2012, 51 percent of migrants entering the EU illegally did so via Greece. This trend shifted in 2013 after Greek authorities enhanced border controls under Operation Aspida (or "Shield"), which included the construction of a barbed-wire fence at the Greek-Turkish border.
Increased patrols in the waters off western Africa were thought to have effectively curbed migration along the Western Mediterranean passage to Spain in recent years, but 2014 saw a dramatic uptick in attempted border crossings from migrants and asylum seekers fleeing conflict in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, and South Sudan. According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, the number of migrants trying to enter Spain illegally in 2014 rose by almost 70 percent from the previous year to 12,549. And despite efforts to fortify the borders of Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish territories that are contiguous with Morocco, a steady stream of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa continue to scale the fences of these two enclaves.