Irregular Migration to Europe: How a New Pact is Shifting Old Routes

Irregular Migration to Europe: How a New Pact is Shifting Old Routes

The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum aims to address irregular migration through better management of external borders and stronger international partnerships. While certain aspects of the proposal create opportunities for a better cooperation, the current approach to stricter return policies is pushing asylum seekers towards riskier and less controlled migration routes to Europe, putting lives at risk and increasing criminal activities.


A Fresh Start on Migration 


In September last year, three separate fires destroyed 80 percent of the largest refugee camp in Europe. The Moria Reception and Identification Centre, located on the Greek island of Lesvos, displaced over 12,600 migrants and refugees and revealed serious shortcomings in the EU’s migration policy. Since the European migrant crisis in 2015, the Greek government has been struggling to accommodate the influx of migrants arriving on its islands through the Eastern Mediterranean route.

In response to the tragedy at the Moria refugee camp, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, revealed a proposal for a New Pact on Migration and Asylum with the promise that the European Union should have “no more Morias”. The Commissioner acknowledged the failure of the EU’s approach to migration and asylum, and set out to establish more effective policies to address irregular migration to the EU. Yet the ideas put forward in the New Pact have been highly criticized as a continuation of the status quo in the fight against irregular migration.

The European Commission’s Pact on Migration intends to give a “fresh start”, centred around shared responsibility and enhanced solidarity. The proposal builds upon three dimensions. Strengthening of cooperation with countries of origin and transit lies at the external dimension, followed by the “robust and fair” management of the EU’s external borders. Last but not least, internal rules on migration establish the ground for a more balanced distribution of asylum seekers between EU Member States.


Opportunities and Challenges 


To address the issue of irregular migration, the New Pact emphasizes the need for a stricter border control at the EU’s external borders. One the one hand, the proposal outlines a new EU strategy for an integrated border management. An important aspect of the proposal is the Commission’s plan to reach ‘full interoperability’ of IT border management systems by the end of 2023. An improved operational capacity is considered an essential step in strengthening the security dimension of the Union. 

The new approach to the EU’s interoperability implies that all systems for border control will “talk” to each other and work together in a more efficient manner. The modernisation of EU information systems will create opportunities for a better cooperation between EU Justice and Home Affairs Agencies, as it will facilitate the exchange of information and intelligence on illegal border crossings. Some of the systems taking part in the interoperability plan are the EU asylum fingerprint database Eurodac, the Entry/Exit System (EES) and the Visa Information System (VIS).

On the other hand, tighter security measures imply an increase in operational staff and the presence of border guards – also known as standing corps – on the main migration routes to Europe. In 2019, the EU allocated €101.4 Million to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in a plan to deploy 10,000 standing corps by 2027 to protect the external borders of the EU. The leading role of Frontex as an operational arm to ensure an effective EU return system has been reiterated in the proposed New Pact. 


Impact on Irregular Migration


2020 marked the lowest rates in irregular migration to Europe since 2013. The border restrictions put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 obstructed the free movement of people across borders. Albeit the drop in registered cases of irregular border crossings of migrants, Europol, the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, has pointed to the emergence of new routes and new methods of entering the EU. The COVID-19 travel restrictions led to a shift in illegal crossings from air to land and sea, with smugglers’ modus operandi involving the use of small boats, cargo trains and freight vehicles.

Irregular migration routes have been shifting as well. Despite an overall decrease in the influx of asylum seekers in the past year, the Western and Central Mediterranean routes saw an overall increase in migration in 2020. The number of undocumented migrants coming on boats to Spain’s Canary Islands was eight times higher in 2020 compared to the previous year. The same trend was observed in Italy, where the amount of migrants entering the country has more than doubled in 2020.

In its report, “How COVID-19-Related Crime Infected Europe During 2020”, Europol warned of “newly emerging routes” such as the corridor by sea from Albania to Italy. The Agency reported that one of the reasons for the emerging shifts in irregular migration to Europe could be due to the tightened police measures along the Western Balkan route. Faced with the risk of return, migrants have adapted to the new restrictions by crossing borders through less known and therefore more dangerous routes.

According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), the more hostile policy environment and the “high profit, low risk” nature of migrant smuggling are likely to attract organised criminal groups who will exploit vulnerabilities of asylum seekers. Smugglers and traffickers have seen the more inaccessible EU borders as an opportunity to discover new migration corridors. In this way, some of the ideas put forward in the proposed New Pact on migration might in fact exacerbate the same issues they are trying to resolve.


Post-Pandemic Landscape


The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have led to the tightening of border control and have decreased the amount of asylum seekers coming to the EU. Once the spread of the virus is under control, the loosening of measures is likely to result in an influx of irregular migration to Europe. As the global economy is sliding into its worst recession since World War II, a new wave of economic migrants is expected to hit Europe. According to the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC), a prolonged economic uncertainty in some African countries might trigger another wave of irregular migration to Europe.

This outlook will certainly require a coherent and effective EU migration policy. The New Pact recognizes that the EU is “losing the global race for talent” . Yet stricter migration policies might diminish opportunities for young migrant workers. Whereas border control should be a priority, more security presence on the ground is likely to create more fear of return and push migrants into the hands of smugglers. 

The newly integrated border management systems are expected to be fully operable by the end of 2023. Once implemented, the new plan for inter-agency cooperation will allow for the faster exchange of intelligence and information on irregular migration. This in turn will facilitate the fight against migrant smuggling, allowing for better early warning mechanisms and crisis preparedness. After all, the New Pact is not merely “old wine in new bottles”. It is an opportunity that should not be overlooked.



Categories: Europe, Politics

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