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EU’s Exclusionary Migration Policies Place People on the Move toward Europe at Greater Risk

The crimes of trafficking and aggravated smuggling of persons are of great concern to UNHCR. More than 3,000 people died or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and the Atlantic last year, hoping to reach Europe, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on April 2022, appealing for $163.5 million to assist and protect thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. Credit: IOM 2020/Alexander Bee

BRUSSELS, Jul 4 2022 (IPS) - A mass attempt on June 24, 2022, of about 2000 African migrants to scale the border fence between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla left at least 37 people dead.

Several human rights organizations call for an investigation into what ranks as the deadliest day in recent memory along this section of the EU’s only land border with Africa. Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, congratulated the coordinated action of the Spanish Civil Guard and the Moroccan security forces. He blamed the mafias and smugglers for the deaths.

On the other hand, Moussa Faki Mahamat, the head of the African Union Commission, expressed “my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from Morocco into Spain.”

Also Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International Spain, stated: “It is time to put an end to this policy which allows and encourages serious human rights violations. A ‘business as usual’ approach is no longer valid amid the blood and shame”. It is essential “to understand our double standards and ensure that all refugees have the opportunity – as Ukrainians have had – to escape war and repression by seeking asylum through legal and safe channels”.

Mixed Migration Centre

The Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) is a global network engaged in mixed migration data collection, research, analysis, and policy and program development. Their June 2022 report, entitled “Security costs: How the EU’s exclusionary migration policies place people on the move toward Italy and Greece at greater risk – a quantitative analysis”, puts the migration issues in perspective.

The MMC report clearly documents the main protection risks faced by Asian and African migrants and refugees as they travel to Europe along the Central Mediterranean Route (CMR), the Eastern Mediterranean Route (EMR) and the Western Balkans Route (WBR).

The report confirms that a ‘securitized approach’—one that often criminalizes refugees and migrants— coupled with a lack of legal and safe mobility pathways is reducing the protection space for people moving along the main migration routes to and through Europe.

Since its inception in 2014 and through early 2021 MMC’s 4Mi survey has conducted more than 75,000 interviews (that’s about 1,000 interviews per month). The refugees and migrants who took part in the surveys feel that their journey to Europe poses serious risks, including detention, physical and sexual violence, robbery, bribery/extortion and even death.

Children are also exposed to similar protection risks, including detention. The three routes each pose their own specific protection risks, but also share common challenges. Militias are most prevalent on the CMR, and ‘state’ actors on the EMR and the WBR, while criminal gangs are frequently reported across all three routes.

Smugglers are a concern among respondents but are rarely considered to be the main perpetrators of abuse. The CMR—and Libya in particular—is more often reported as dangerous. On the EMR and the WBR routes, migrants and refugees often indicate Turkey, Iran, and Greece as locations where protection incidents are more likely to occur.

Refugees and migrants use a number of strategies to mitigate the risks they expect to face, such as traveling in groups and carrying cash. The latter to prevent them from having to work (under lousy exploitative conditions) to pay for their travels, or to buy themselves ‘free’ and avoid other problems.

The EU’s externalization policies have worsened rather than improved the situation.

Opinions on protection risks are in line with what other studies and reports have noted: that abuse, violence and death are common when migrants and refugees travel through the countries where European externalization policies are implemented — most notably Libya, Niger and Mali across the CMR, and Turkey in the EMR.

Against this background, the externalization policies of the EU and its Member States, and their partnerships with authorities in third countries, remain a major concern in terms of their ethical and financial costs and their impact on the protection of people on the move. Only for the EU does this policy seem effective because arrivals in Europe along various migration routes have been reduced.

In fact, however, it is very likely that the current approach increases the protection risks of migrants and refugees. Indeed, studies have confirmed how these measures violate international and human rights standards set for the protection of people on the run.

A case in point is Europe’s ongoing collaboration with the Libyan coast guard to intercept and return large numbers of migrants and refugees to Tripoli, the city most often considered to be dangerous by the migrants, and one that human rights groups and international organizations have often mentioned in connection to severe forms of violence against, and the unlawful detention of migrants and refugees.

A 2021 report by Amnesty International, for example, highlighted that physical violence and other abuses in Libya had shown no indication of diminishing over the past decade.

The awareness of migrants and refugees of the protection risks in the CMR also points to something else: that there is a feeling that such risks are inevitable on these migration journeys to Europe. One explanation could be that increasingly restrictive border controls and the lack of legal routes mean that migrants and refugees seeking to enter Europe have no other options. Greece is a case in point.

Numerous reports and studies have demonstrated how the EU-Turkey Statement and tighter border controls across the WBR have stemmed the flow of people and exposed migrants to considerable protection risks by forcing them to take highly perilous routes.

Also, the widespread tendency to indiscriminately incarcerate migrants entering the country for lengthy periods of time, in line with the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, as well as the practice of pushbacks by the Greek coast guard might have led migrants and refugees to opt for the more dangerous, yet more available, paths to Europe.

Bangladeshis, for example, for whom it seems “easier” and safer to use the EMR route, have chosen to try the dangerous crossing via the CMR from Libya to Italy. The question is therefore: why do respondents in the survey continue to use certain routes and locations, despite the many known and very real risks?

The tightening of border controls increases the reliance on smugglers to evade border controls, with smugglers decreasing the chances of arrest by employing increasingly dangerous strategies, ultimately increasing the risks to refugees and migrants.

Such strategies include departing on longer and therefore more dangerous sea and desert routes, choosing unsafe embarkation and boarding points and dumping people on ‘boats’ in rough seas.

The findings of this study regarding the most common perpetrators of abuse across the three routes raise questions about the implications of the EU approach to protecting people on the move.

The prominence of militias and armed gangs are the main perpetrators of abuse reported by respondents who have traveled the CMR. In addition, they traverse areas marked by ongoing political instability, conflict and insecurity, and the collapse of the rule of law.

Nevertheless, the role played by militias and gangs in the protection risks faced by migrants and refugees cannot be separated from the EU’s externalization policies or its interaction with local political economies.

Libya and Niger have been systematically engaged by the EU to stem migratory flows and fight migrant smuggling and human trafficking. Local militias have sometimes even become involved in fighting smuggling groups and/or intercepting refugees and migrants at sea and returning them to Libya.

In summary, while it would be simplistic to argue that EU border policy alone creates all the protection risks faced by migrants and refugees, there seems to be a worrying alignment between the perpetrators the migrants fear most and the actors who secured the funding mobilized by the EU for migration management and the fight against people smuggling.

While the data shows that smugglers remain a major concern for people fleeing to Europe, respondents say they are rarely among the most common perpetrators of violence. These findings indicate that an EU approach mainly focused on ‘securitisation’ and the fight against people smuggling – an approach based on the argument that breaking the so-called business model of smuggling would ensure the safety of refugees and migrants by ending making their perilous crossing of the Mediterranean — may not be as effective as portrayed in political and policy circles.


The Center for Mixed Migration calls on policy makers and authorities to improve European migration management policies, in particular the full implementation of the objectives set out in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees. The EU and its Member States should:

• Provide detailed and evidence-based analyzes of the impact of EU cooperation with third country partners on both human rights and local economies affected by the implementation of EU externalization measures. These analyzes should be performed on a case-by-case basis for all affected communities in each partner country;

• Support the sharing of information on perpetrators of human rights violations between law enforcement actors at national and international level, including outside Europe, while ensuring that all cooperation is in line with international human rights and refugee law;

• Expanding cooperation with the Government of Turkey to increase its capacity in all provinces to properly implement refugee status and provide international protection, taking into account age-, gender- and diversity-specific vulnerabilities and protection challenges (e.g. Afghans, single women with children and young men);

• All aid that contributes to the interception, return and often detention of refugees and migrants in shutting down Libya, as it is not a safe place. Also ensure that no one is at risk of inhumane and degrading treatment in Libya and support humanitarian programs that respond to the needs of the people;

• Improving the monitoring of deaths along migration routes to Europe by including more details in the data systems on deaths along the route;

• Open new channels of legal entry and strengthen existing ones by granting humanitarian visas, creating humanitarian corridors between transit countries and Europe, expanding Member States’ resettlement programs and facilitating alternative legal routes, such as family reunification, university scholarships and training programmes.

Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change ( ) and co-editor of the 2021 Palgrave Handbook of International Communication and Sustainable Development. (

IPS UN Bureau


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