A view on migration to Europe in the 21st century

By Niall McGlynn

Afghan migrants disembark safely from their frail boat in bad weather on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. AP PHOTO / SANTI PALACIOS

According to the latest figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 2,725 migrants/refugees have died attempting to make the crossing from Libya to Italy this year, against a total of 386 deaths for the Turkey to Greece route. As in 2015, the latter route has more migrant traffic over all, but the route from Libya remains far more deadly.

The number 2,725 is a stark one. It translates to roughly 7 migrants dying every day for the whole of 2016 on the Libya route alone. And this does not include the large number of migrants who never make it to the shores of the Mediterranean, who die every year crossing the Sahara on the notoriously dangerous routes from Sub-saharan Africa to the Libyan coast. Nor does it count the very real dangers posed by lawless militias and armed gangs in Libya itself.

The ‘migrant crisis’ in Libya has been grinding on for five years, since the overthrow of Muammar al-Qadhafi in 2011. Every year new policies are announced and old ones dusted down by the governments of Europe. Border patrols are increased, diplomatic pressure is put on governments in West and North Africa to do more against people smugglers, and fresh pleas are made for ships to fish people out of the Mediterranean. And through it all, the stream of migrants heading to Europe continues relentlessly.

Whether bureaucrats classify them as economic migrants, refugees or asylum seekers, migrants are becoming a permanent, long term feature in Europe. According to UNHCR figures, the number of migrants arriving in Europe by sea alone has been above 50,000 per year for nearly a decade. For the last three years it has been above 200,000 with a record high of over 1 million arrivals by sea in 2015.

Migration, like globalisation, automation and the growth in personal computing, is a long term economic, political and social trend. Like other long term trends, it is driven by a combination of market pressures, political realities and new forms of communication.

From a market point of view, migration from less wealthy countries outside Europe to wealthier ones within Europe is simply a question of supply and demand. Relative poverty and a lack of opportunity in countries like Nigeria and Cameroon leads to a demand for a better life, with Europe providing a viable alternative if migrants can reach the continent. The disparity in wealth and opportunity is so great that people are willing to risk their lives crossing the desert and the sea, and then attempt to work their way through Europe’s byzantine asylum and migration procedures.

This demand is also driven in a large part by political considerations. Instability and violence in a number of countries across the Middle East and Africa make the decision to come to Europe often more about survival than opportunity. It is no coincidence that war torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan are the largest contributors to the migrant population. Thus war and the fear of war rachet up demand for entry to Europe, creating a market for people smugglers. These markets are informal, based around personal communication over the internet and through mobile phone networks. Money transfer services and phone banking make the entire process of purchasing the services of smugglers fast and efficient. Market pressures in the form of more migrants or ‘customers’ and the need to avoid state authorities drive innovation. People smuggling, no less than any of the startups in silicon valley, is driven by smart, ambitious, and resourceful entrepreneurs, who are chasing ever increasing profits.

This combination of high demand and high profits has driven the prolific growth in human smuggling. Like the responses to other illicit industries throughout history, prohibition is a futile exercise. Government clampdowns merely drive the migrant smuggling trade further underground, and encourage smugglers to cut corners and take bigger risks with the lives of their human cargo. Migrants will not be deterred by measures like deportation and harsher border controls, as the factors driving them, like war and repression, far outweigh any obstacles European governments can put in their path.

Government prohibition has other, darker consequences, however. The explosive growth in migrant smuggling has in turn acted as a cover for more nefarious activities. As well as people willingly paying to be smuggled to Europe, women and girls are also being trafficked, hidden in the vast numbers of regular migrants. Sex slavery, extortion and abuse are rife along the migrant trails, and the underground nature of the trade makes these vicious crimes both more widespread and easier to hide.

Just as the unintended side effects of prohibition included dramatic violence and the growth of huge criminal organisations, so punitive measures against migrants and refugees are fueling trafficking and abuse. Migrants won’t stop trying to get to Europe, and as long as their only options include people smugglers, these smuggling gangs will continue to thrive. There is growing evidence that the proceeds of migrant smuggling are being used to fund armed gangs and political violence in Libya. The effects of restrictive migration policies are being felt far beyond the migrants themselves, although they remain the most likely, if unintended, victims.

European institutions, governments and policy -makers need to face the reality that migration at current levels is here to stay. No amount of heated rhetoric or increased funding for borders is going to stop it. The more Europe fights to restrict migration, the further it pushes migrants into the arms of people smugglers. Europe’s migrant policies need a radical overhaul, and the EU in particular needs to start thinking in the long term about migration policy. The 21st century is set to be the century of the migrant, and Europe needs to make sure it is ready to face the future with clear thinking and realistic policies.


[1] Migration flows – Europe. IOM

[2] Kevin Sieff. A smugglers’ haven in the Sahara: the route to Europe for many African migrants passes through the underworld of Agadez, Niger. The Washinghton Post. July 20, 2015

[3] Patrick Kingsley. ‘They were psychopaths’: how chaos in Libya fuels the migration crisis. The Guardian. June 17, 2016

[4] Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean. UNHCR 

[5] Mark Shaw, Fiona Mangan “Illicit Trafficking and Libyas Transition: Profits and Losses”. United States Institute of Peace. 2014


Niall McGlynn
Niall holds a Master's Degree in International Relations from Leiden University and has previously graduated from history and science. His research in Leiden focused on state-breakdown and its role in migration patterns, especially in Libya. Moreover, Niall has undertaken numerous research projects involving data analysis, historical investigation and policy proposals. He has experience in writing for a national news website in Ireland and for an international policy website. In addition, Niall worked for two years in the Irish civil service, in both social welfare and health, where he encountered first hand the issues refugees and migrants face accessing services in host countries.

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