September 1, 2023

IntelBrief: How One of the Deadliest Years for Migrants Will Impact European Politics

AP Photo/Joan Mateu Parra

Bottom Line Up Front

  • This year has marked both a sharp increase in migrants attempting to reach Europe, as well as one of the deadliest on record, with thousands dying in the Mediterranean from overcrowded boats capsizing or sinking.
  • War and conflict, food insecurity, political and economic instability, and poverty – all of which are exacerbated by climate change – are among the primary drivers leading migrants to attempt the perilous journey to Europe.
  • Tighter border restrictions and diminished regular pathways have increased the demand – and profits – for smugglers and human traffickers, generating millions of euros a year for organized criminal networks, according to the European Coast Guard and Border Agency.
  • The increase in migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean route has recentered and amplified a fixture of European politics, providing considerable leverage for renewed autocracies like Tunisia and bolstering far-right narratives and policies.

With four months still left in the year, 2023 is already set to outpace last year in the number of migrant arrivals to Europe. According to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 159,410 total refugees and migrants have arrived this year via the Mediterranean route compared with 89,921 this time last year – a 77 percent increase. Although not at the levels seen at the peak of the “refugee crisis” in 2015, the increase in migrant arrivals is significant and is recentering and amplifying, yet again, a fixture of European political debate.

This year has also marked one of the deadliest for migrants attempting to reach Europe. The journey, particularly by sea, has become increasingly lethal. According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants dead and missing as of late August – 2,307 – will soon exceed the total number in 2022. The actual numbers are likely higher than official estimates due to the clandestine nature of smuggling and the fact that shipwrecks with no survivors can make verification of the number of dead or missing challenging. This summer has been punctuated by numerous stories of deadly shipwrecks and capsizing boats. Examples abound, including two separate sinkings off the coast of Greece in mid-June which resulted in the deaths of more than 300 Pakistani nationals in one case and over 600 people, many from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern Africa, in the other. The latter has been deemed the deadliest known shipwreck in the Mediterranean. Migrants are forced by smugglers to make the journey in low-cost iron boats or fishing vessels prone to capsizing or sinking, due to overcrowding and vessels breaking down after only 20 or 30 hours of navigation.

Unseaworthy vessels and overcrowding are not the only factors that have led to deadlier outcomes. Survivors of the shipwreck in mid-June that left 600 dead have blamed the Hellenic (Greek) Coast Guard for the disaster, claiming that repeated attempts to tow the boat led the ship to capsize. Although an investigation into this shipwreck is still underway, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel has highlighted a growing trend by countries, including Greece, to assist migrant boats in leaving their waters, either by providing supplies to extend their journey or towing vessels to another country’s waters. Further, in late July, Italian police arrested four Tunisian men on charges of piracy, accusing the men of intercepting migrant boats in the central Mediterranean and stealing the migrants' money and phones, as well as the boat engines. Investigators are still determining whether these men acted alone or worked for human smugglers attempting to reuse the engines for other migrant boats to maximize their profits. This example points perhaps to the latter of the two options, but certainly indicates a broader trend; Italian authorities have noted that an increasing number of rescued migrant boats are found without engines.

Despite the severe risks, several factors are leading people to attempt the journey to Europe. War and conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA region, including Syria, as well as Central Asia (particularly in Afghanistan), have led many migrants to set sail for Europe. The threat of terrorism and violent extremism in places like the Sahel region have not only become drivers for their own populations but also a threat to spill over to neighboring countries and put more people on the move. Political upheaval in TunisiaPakistan, and even once peaceful outliers such as Senegal, and a rapid succession of coups, such as in Niger and Guinea, has reinforced wider regional instability and further contributed to migration. Economic volatility and systemic poverty, compounded by the pandemic, have fueled the rise in migrant arrivals from places like Egypt, for example. Food insecurity, heightened by the war in Ukraine and the collapse of the Black Sea grain deal, has also served as a major driver of migration trends. All these factors have been exacerbated by climate change, potentially resulting in larger numbers of migrants attempting to reach Europe’s shores.

In response to the sharp influx of refugees due to the war in Syria, as well as seeking to reduce overall migration levels, European countries have tightened border restrictions and diminished regular pathways for refugees and migrants. These policies have heightened the demand for smugglers and human traffickers, with migrants often suffering extortion, exploitation, violence, and abuse – including sexual and gender-based violence. An ever-increasing demand – despite these risks – has been good business for smugglers and human traffickers, generating an estimated millions of euros a year for criminal smuggling networks, according to the European Coast Guard and Border Agency.

The increase in migrant arrivals and deadly shipwrecks in the Mediterranean has recentered a fixture of European politics, amplifying a heated debate over the EU’s migration policies. This has provided considerable leverage for renewed autocracies like Tunisia, as the country’s increasing role as a transit country – and now, a key departure point – for migrants to Europe has allowed it to gain significant concessions and support from the European bloc. Despite Tunisian President Kais Saied’s crackdown on dissent, his parroting conspiraciesreminiscent of the “Great Replacement” theory, and his government’s alleged human rights abuses against sub-Saharan migrants, including rounding up over one thousand and abandoning them in the desert with no supplies, the EU has struck a deal with Tunisia to stem migration. In exchange for Tunisia’s commitment to tightening its sea borders, combatting human smuggling networks, and expediting the return of Tunisians who have entered Europe illegally, the EU has promised Tunisia 105 million euros for equipment, training, and technical support, in addition to helping cover the cost of voluntary repatriation for sub-Saharan migrants. Yet, outsourcing migration policy to Tunisia comes with risks, particularly as Tunisians – many fleeing instability in the country – are the largest nationality of migrant arrivals to Europe. Moreover, outsourcing migration policy to Tunisia is a significant gamble. In mid-June, before the deal with the EU was finalized, Saied stated he would not be Europe’s border guard, raising significant questions about his willingness to actually enforce Europe’s expectations. The rise in migrant arrivals has also demonstrated the strengthening hand of far-right populists in Europe, as the issue has led to the collapse of the Dutch government earlier this summer, a boon for the leadership of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who co-led the effort on the Tunisia deal, and the mainstreaming of the far-right policies and narratives throughout the continent. As migration trends show no sign of abating, with the drivers only likely to worsen and Tunisia a potentially unreliable partner, the issue will provide ample fodder for far-right populist messaging. These parties have proven adept at capitalizing on the issue in the past, as the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis displayed, and will likely significantly shape the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024.