On April 20th 2015 a boat carrying migrants from Libya to Italy capsized and sank off the Mediterranean Sea, causing the death of approximately 800 people. It was reported that the boat, set out from Misrata, carried migrants hailing from Somalia, Ghana and Eritrea. Following the shipwreck, Italian authorities detained the captain and the crew of the boat who were among the 28 survivors. The magnitude of the tragedy has raised global concern on the rising phenomenon of irregular immigration and prompted a rapid European reaction. Illegal exoduses are symptoms of a major disease that results from the combination of a number of plagues affecting wide areas of our world. This is true in particular when considering Africa and Middle East, which are currently the main areas of origin of migrants. In order to address the problem of irregular immigration from a European and global perspective and to find long-term solutions it is essential to understand why this phenomenon has soared during the last years, to analyse the main causes which are pushing people to leave their home countries and to eliminate those underlying causes so as to decrease the number of illegal exoduses.

History and causes of increasing migration fluxes towards Europe

A primary consideration has to be done when addressing the problem of migration: illegal exoduses are just one aspect (though a major one) of a broader problem, the current general increase in migration flows toward Europe. This phenomenon is the symptom of deep and severe diseases mostly affecting Africa and Middle East: wars, persecutions and increasing poverty. The combination of these elements has brought to a rapid surge in migration flows during the last decades.

Concerning the first question, militarized interstate disputes, civil wars, and active separatist movements’ unrests have caused huge instability in the above-mentioned regions during the last years, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to leave their home countries in search for safer places to live in. The Global Peace Index Score 2014 has highlighted that the most insecure and least peaceful countries are Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria and Iraq. In the global rank, Syria appears to be the most war-prone country of the world. The civil war started by the Free Syrian Army in 2011 rapidly intertwined with regional rivalries such as the antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the hegemony in Middle East. These circumstances exacerbated the strife, making the Syrian conflict the world’s bloodiest war so far. Not only has this war made a huge number of victims but it also has generated millions of refugees. Furthermore, this conflict spread to Iraq in 2014 where ISIS took the power seizing lands and resources with the support of Sunni tribes opposing to the Shi’ite government. Considering Africa, violent sub-Saharan conflicts have forced local populations to abandon their native lands in search for safer havens. This is the case amongst the others of Nigeria, where a violent Islamist group has instigated repeated violence against the government, South Sudan, that, after a long North-South conflict, has achieved its independence but has immediately slipped into a bloody ethnic civil war that reportedly has killed tens of thousands, and Somalia, where still opposite factions are striving for the control of the territory. Besides, the abiding dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia has worsened after the last war between the two countries dating back to May 1998. In fact, during the last years, a number of skirmishes have taken place near the borders, signalling a new confrontation, particularly around Badme. This has increased the migration fluxes originating from those countries. The Democratic Republic Of The Congo has proved to be as war-prone as the above-mentioned countries. In fact, this territory has been affected by a long-lasting bloody civil war up until now. Since 2011 insecurity and war-proneness have spread also in Northern Africa. In particular, with regard to Libya, after the overturning of Gaddafi a number of militias have taken control of different parts of the country, hindering the establishment and consolidation of a democratic government. Instability has been affecting the country by then, easing the rise of a number of different political actors competing for the control of the territory. Amongst those, the most relevant are the official Tobruk government, the GNC Islamist based in Tripoli and ISIS occupying Derna. The lack of a sovereign power that effectively controls the country has transformed Libya in a failed state and has rendered its territories the main departure point for illegal migrants coming from all parts of Africa and Middle East.

The second major problem causing the increase in migration fluxes from Africa and Middle East is tightly interconnected with the first one. Indeed, civil wars and revolutions usually entail persecutions against political opponents, religious groups, ethnic minorities and, in general, people belonging to the defeated factions. These phenomena, which have progressively increased during the last years, are pushing people to migrate, producing exoduses and refugees. Persecutions usually arise where fundamental freedoms are not guaranteed nor protected by the government. Those countries can be easily identified considering Freedom House’s flagship publication, “Freedom in the World”, which classifies states from free to not free considering variables such as the respect for political rights and civil liberties. Its 2015 rank shows that Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Syria and Iraq are the least free countries of the world.  The lack of protection of fundamental rights can a consequence of the fact that central governments either cannot or do not want to protect their population. Many researches have pointed out that the presence of failed states further exacerbates persecutions and genocides. The Fragile States Index 2014, based on indicators such as the percentage of refugees and IDPs, group grievance, uneven economic development, poverty and economic decline, state legitimacy, human rights and rule of law, proves that Africa and Middle East are the most unstable and fragile areas of the world.

Finally, a third element encouraging migration is poverty. Wars, political instability, climate change and hostile environmental conditions are deeply affecting livelihood in Africa and Middle East, increasing food insecurity and spreading absolute poverty. Hence, desperation and survival instincts push people to look for better chances in the “developed world”, thus fostering migration. 

Why is irregular migration increasing?

Analysing the main causes of booming migration fluxes is useful to realize that exoduses are frequently a forced choice for people living in regions affected by wars, persecutions and hunger such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East. However, it does not explain why there has been a rapid surge in the rate of irregular immigration towards Europe. In order to understand the causes of this phenomenon it is essential to consider the most recent trends concerning migration fluxes, the legal framework that regulates international protection at global level and the migration system built by the European Union.

With regards to migration fluxes’ trends, many researches have highlighted that irregular migrants often come from countries involved in conflicts, affected by civil wars and hunger. Frontex reports have underlined that Syrians accounted for almost a quarter of 2013 total irregular migrants with Eritreans and Afghans representing the main other nationalities. Moreover, reports have highlighted that detections of Nigerians, Malians, Gambians and Senegalese have also quadrupled. Frontex has pinpointed two main migration routes to reach Europe: the Western Mediterranean Route and the Central Mediterranean route. The first expression refers to the route based on the sea passage from North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. It is used mainly by Algerian and Moroccan migrants attempting to reach Spain, France and Italy, but, over the years, it has been increasingly used by Sub-Saharan Africans. Currently, this route is considered one of the main entry points for irregular migration to the EU. Even though Spanish authorities undertook severe measures to strengthen their border control in that area, the migratory pressure peaked in 2014 following the exacerbation of conflicts and the spread of violence in Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic, which have caused the displacement of large parts of the population. The second expression refers to migratory flows originating from Northern Africa. This route, heading towards Italy and Malta through the Mediterranean Sea, has always represented a major entry point for irregular migrants, mostly from Nigeria, Somalia and Eritrea, eager to reach the EU. Although the Italian government made some attempt to stop this movement by signing a bilateral agreement with Libya in 2009, migration fluxes originating from this area soared sharply after the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the collapse of Gaddafi regime in 2011. Nowadays, with no central power exercising effective control over the territory, Libya is a failed states based on chaos and civil war. These circumstances have hindered any attempt of the EU to control irregular migration fluxes originating from this country.

Even though it has had a major role in easing immigration towards the EU, proximity with Libyan failed state is not the underlying cause that provoked massive illegal exoduses. Indeed, the above-mentioned routes are just an instrument, and the unique one, for migrants to reach Europe. The main elements that have caused such a rapid and gigantic surge in irregular migration fluxes towards the EU are the limits of international protection rules and the shortcomings affecting the EU legal framework on migration and asylum.

In order to analyse the limits of international protection rules, it is essential to start from a simple consideration. Migrants can be classified in two categories: economic migrants and refugees. Indeed, it is no mystery that a considerable number of people leave their home countries and try to reach Europe in order to escape from wars, persecution and hunger. Refugees are protected by international rules, namely the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees that represents the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, its rights and the legal obligations of states at global level. Certainly, this Convention has brought about enormous progress in the framework of International Law since it entered into force, changing the perception of the international community towards the protection of Human Rights. However, during the years, it has shown its limits. In fact, its rules have proved to be ineffective when it comes to protect specific categories of individuals that at first sight could be qualified as refugees but, after a deeper analysis, do not fulfil with the requirements to obtain the status. Indeed, the definition of refugee and the procedure to qualify for international protection are strictly determined. This limits the number of individuals that fall within the scope of 1951 Convention to those who comply with the requirements. Concerning the definition, Article 1 letter a) paragraph 2 states that a refugee is and individual that “owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” In order to apply for the refugee status, individuals must meet all the above-mentioned requirements, which narrow the area of application of the Convention, thus excluding some categories such as war and climate refugees. Notwithstanding the compliance with legal requirements, a second major obstacle that hinders the achievement of the refugee status consists in that: migrants usually want to apply for the status in EU countries due to their better economic, social and political conditions. However, in order to achieve this aim, individuals must come into contact with the host country’s authorities to hand in their request, as the Convention states. This implies reaching the borders of the chosen Member State, which usually constitutes a serious challenge for nationals of countries listed as the ones that are required a visa to travel to the EU. Indeed, getting a visa has become more and more difficult for nationals of certain countries during the last years due to the increase of migration fluxes originating from those states. These circumstances have led to the increase in the number of people attempting to reach EU member states illegally.

With regards to the deficiencies affecting EU legal framework on migration and asylum, the analysis gets more difficult. In fact, EU competences on migration and asylum have been evolving rapidly during the last decades resulting in the gradual erosion of states sovereignty and increasing takeover of EU’s institutions in these fields. EU has begun to acquire competence on migration and asylum after the signing of Schengen Agreement and the creation of the EU Single Market. The elimination of internal borders immediately raised the need for the harmonization of member states’ migration policies. During this process, not only has the EU developed a common policy on migration but it has also conceived a common policy on asylum in compliance with Article 78 TFUE (“The Union shall develop a common policy on asylum, subsidiary protection and temporary protection with a view to offering appropriate status to any third-country national requiring international protection and ensuring compliance with the principle of non-refoulement. This policy must be in accordance with the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the status of refugees, and other relevant treaties.”). European Migration Policy nowadays includes policies on legal migration, irregular migration, borders, visa, a Common European Asylum System and the external dimension. In particular, it embeds 1951 Convention. This is clear when considering the Directive 2011/95/EU (Qualification Directive) since Article 2 letter d) replicates the definition of refugee presented in 1951 Convention. Consequently, this implies that subjective and procedural limits affecting 1951 Convention are transferred into EU common policy on asylum. Besides, new procedural limits to the recognition of refugee status add to the above-mentioned ones. In fact, when it comes to apply for the refugee status, migrants have to overcome two obstacles. A first obstacle, as underlined before, it is represented by the the need for migrants to come into contact with the authorities of the EU host country where they choose to migrate in order to apply for the refugee status. A second obstacle lays exactly in the difficulties that migrants face in order to reach the host country where to apply for the refugee status. Indeed, most of the people heading towards Europe through the Mediterranean routes do not want to settle in Italy nor in Malta; their final destinations are usually northern and central EU countries such as France, Belgium and Germany. The EU legislative framework further frustrates migrants’ purposes inasmuch as EU Regulation 604/2013 (Dublin Regulation) establishes criteria for the determination of the Member State responsible for examining asylum applications. Indeed, Article 13 (Entry or Stay) states at paragraph 1 that, when the previous criteria cannot be applied and “Where it is established, […] that an applicant has irregularly crossed the border into a Member State by land, sea or air having come from a third country, the Member State thus entered shall be responsible for examining the application for international protection. That responsibility shall cease 12 months after the date on which the irregular border crossing took place.” Therefore, first landing Member States are the ones charged with ascertaining whether or not migrats can qualify as refugees. This implies that if migrants are caught by their first landing state entering or residing illegally in its territories, this country will be the one held responsible for the exam of their status, whether or not migrants ask for protection (in compliance with the principle of non-refoulement stated in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention and with the EU legal framework). Since migrants cannot ask for a different EU country to examine their asylum applications, they are further pushed to enter the EU illegally to reach the desired destination, thus increasing pressure on European borderlands such as Italy.

How to address irregular immigration

Irregular migration has enormous human costs, with hundreds drowned each year in sea crossings aboard overcrowded and sub-standard vessels. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recently declared that in 2014 around 219000 people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach Europe and almost 4000 have died during the journey. The tragedy occurred on April 20th 2015 has raised strong concern all over the world pushing the international community to urge for a fast and effective solution to prevent further casualties. However, European leaders have not yet elaborated a successful strategy.

Up until now, the EU has promoted some important actions in order to fight illegal immigration, such as the negotiation of bilateral agreements with Mediterranean countries and the establishment of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (known as Frontex). With regard to bilateral agreements, those instruments are no more effective, inasmuch as the main transit country, Libya, has no government to negotiate with. As far as Frontex is concerned, the agency action has proved to be ambiguous. On the one side, it has improved data collection and reporting on irregular migration in the EU 
and coordinated Member States’ joint enforcement and return operations since its creation. On the other side, it has increased resource pooling, as it is subsidized by EU Member States and Schengen-associated countries. In addition, Member States have implemented specific programs to fight irregular immigration. This is the case of Italy that, in October 2013, launched a vast search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum aimed at preventing the death of migrants traveling from Africa to Europe. Notwithstanding its success in saving human lives, extremely high costs frustrated the efficiency of the operation. Despite Italian expectations that Mare Nostrum’s costs and responsibility would have been shared with EU Member States, these lasts did not support the operation. Instead, they replaced Mare Nostrum with a EU mission, Operation Triton, which has fewer assets, a third of the budget and a restricted mandate (i.e.: whereas Mare Nostrum operated in international waters, Triton will be active only up to 30 miles off the Italian coast; however most of the tragedies occurred beyond this threshold). Despite EU efforts to fight illegal immigration at European level, Operation Triton proved to be ineffective when compared to Mare Nostrum. Indeed, Triton mandate is limited to surveillance operations. Previous to the latest tragedy, this failure had already pushed the European Commission to launch its work on a comprehensive European Agenda on Migration. In fact, over the past months, EU institutions became aware of the fact that border management constitutes a shared competence between the EU and the Member States, and the enforcement of the surveillance of EU’s external borders is of vital interest to Europe as a whole. The aim of the European Agenda on Migration was to enhance EU’s efforts in order to improve the existing tools and to foster cooperation in managing migration flows from third countries. Besides, the EU has proposed to revise the EU Blue Card Directive in order to advance EU legal migration policy and to strengthen the fight against human trafficking, though concrete tools targeting priority countries and routes, in close collaboration with third countries, such as readmission agreements. 

In the aftermath of the tragedy occurred on April 20th 2015, a Joint Foreign and Home Affairs Council and Special meeting of the European Council were held to elaborate a plan to rapidly address the crisis situation in the Mediterranean. Both institutions established that the EU should strengthen its presence at sea, reinforcing the Joint Operations in the Mediterranean by increasing the financial resources and the number of assets. Moreover, the EU should fight human trafficking networks by bringing the perpetrators to justice in accordance with international law and by seizing their assets (identifying, capturing and destroying vessels before they are used by smugglers). Besides, the EU should reinforce internal solidarity and responsibility. This includes organizing emergency relocation between all Member States on a voluntary basis, deploying EASO teams in frontline Member States for joint processing of asylum applications and setting up a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement across the EU, offering places to persons qualifying for protection. Finally, the EU should increase support to Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Mali, Niger and Turkey (in view of the situation in Syria and Iraq) among others, to monitor and control the land borders and routes, as well as reinforce political cooperation with African partners at all levels in order to tackle the causes of irregular migration. This includes fostering cooperation with neighbor countries to implement return programs to promote readmission of unauthorized economic migrants to countries of origin and transit while respecting the right to seek asylum.

Even though many have welcomed the new EU action plan as a great step up in the fight against irregular immigration, its limits and deficiencies are undeniable. This plan is clearly aimed at hindering illegal exoduses from neighbour countries but it completely overlooks that, in order to prevent this phenomenon, it is essential have to address and eliminate its underlying causes. In fact, as it has been highlighted previously, illegal immigration is just a symptom of deeper diseases such as wars, persecutions and hunger. Therefore, in order to effectively tackle this phenomenon, there is the need for a long-term multifaceted strategy that requires efforts from the EU, the UN and, in general, the international community.

A primary issue to address is represented by restrictions to the access to international protection. As underlined, these constraints, deriving from the 1951 Convention, are embedded in the EU migration and asylum policy. In order to overcome those limitations, the EU should revise its asylum policy broadening the definition of refugee, as to grant access to protection to excluded categories such as war and climate refugees, which nowadays represent the majority of the illegal migrants. Besides, the EU should create a European reception centre charged with examining applications for the refugee status and distributing migrants following Dublin criteria. With regards to Article 13 (Enter and stay), this rule should be improved as to allow the distribution process on the basis of Member States dimensions and hosting capacities.

A successful engagement of the EU in the fight against human trafficking is unavoidable but hinges on the stabilization of Libya. To achieve this objective, the EU should cooperate with the UN in order to create a humanitarian corridor to prevent further refugees’ casualties while helping restoration of state sovereignty in Libya. In general, these organizations should lead a joint action aimed at stabilizing sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East, where wars, persecutions and poverty are the main causes of migration. With regard to violence, UN direct field interventions to restore peace and security could be a key element in the elimination of wars and persecutions. Nowadays, principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of states, derived from state sovereignty, can no longer prevent interventions when it comes to protect fundamental Human Rights and to restore peace and security. Indeed, during the last decades, state sovereignty has been re-dimensioned by the affirmation of the Responsibility to Protect. This principle states that when a country fails or refuses to protect its population from mass atrocity crimes and Human Rights violations the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures, with military intervention considered a last resort. However, to grant their effectiveness, peace enforcement, peacebuilding and peacekeeping operations should include political stabilization programs and foster state-building in war-torn countries, in particular when considering civil war scenarios. Since political stabilization and state-building are long-term process, they require a continuous, enduring and deep-routed presence of UN peacekeeping forces in conflict-stricken countries. This goal can be pursued by creating a UN agency for peacebuilding and temporary administration of conflict-stricken countries charged with monitoring peacekeeping operations and helping political stabilization. This should include spreading democratic values and respect for Human Rights, as it is proved that democratic countries tend to be less war-prone than authoritarian regimes. Once achieved political stabilization and internalization of democratic values, state sovereignty will be completely restored in these countries.

As far as poverty is concerned, FAO has a central role in tackling this root cause of migration. Indeed, its actions and programs are aimed at eradicating poverty and food insecurity through the development of agriculture in poor countries. This includes broadening the access to finance and assets for smallholders and rural people, improving social protection and assuring decent rural employment. Many statistics show that, when pursued contemporaneously, those three objectives stimulates growth in the agriculture sector. This last usually produces a major part of poor countries GDP. Besides, growth in agriculture will decrease unemployment and boost internal consumption. This will stimulate growth in other sectors and improve economic conditions at national level.  Since wars, persecutions and poverty influence each other, the effectiveness of  plans to fight hunger and poverty is tightly connected to peace maintenance in poor countries, which can be achieved only through international cooperation in the UN framework.


As long as wars, persecutions and hunger linger, people will continue to seek a safe haven in Europe. In order to address effectively irregular immigration, it is essential to build a common sense of responsibility and to address this situation at its roots. Concretely, this means fostering cooperation between the UN, the EU and, in general, the international community in order to eliminate wars, persecutions and hunger in migrants’ home countries. Besides, this also implies sharing the responsibility in welcoming refugees and migrants at European and, when possible, at global level.

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