Migration routes change, migrants' security does not

01.04.14 @ 09:32

  1. By Daniele Grande

BRUSSELS - It could have been just another attempted leap. But on 6 February, Desirée, a young Cameroonian, managed to cross the border and enter in Spain.

  • Lampedusa - the small island off the Italian coast is often the first EU territory reached by migrants from Africa (Photo: Valentina Pop)

According to what she told Spanish news outlet El Confidencial, it was her fourth attempt to jump the fence at Ceuta, at the Moroccan frontier with Spain. Blocked by this barrier, dozens of migrants who shared the route through Africa with her tried to cross another way: by sea. As a result of this decision 15 of them died.

What happened in Ceuta less than two months ago, raising international outcry, encapsulates, on a small scale, what is happening on most immigration routes to Europe: Faced with increasingly militarised borders, immigrants take risks and go on more dangerous routes. When a valve is shut down, be it along the Senegal coast or at the wall between Morocco and Spain, a new path opens up.

An investigation carried out by ten journalists from six European countries has created the most comprehensive database on migrants dying while attempting to reach the continent.

Through the analysis of these data and their comparison with those of the agency for the surveillance of the external borders of the European Union, Frontex, the team identified how policies that aim at decreasing the arrivals of undocumented migrants, increase, in turn, the likelihood that these migrants die in their attempt to reach 'Fortress Europe'.

Frontex data for 2013 show that there have been more attempts by sea than by land. Sea routes counted for 60 percent of the total number of detections. According to data from this investigation, incidents at sea accounted for eight out of 10 victims.

The routes that cross the Mediterranean from Libya and Tunisia to Italy and Malta and the one from Turkey to Greece are the most dangerous, data about migrants deaths show. In 2013, these routes have also been, once again, the most travelled. As in the case of Desiree’s friends, migrants on their way to Europe increasingly turn to unsafe routes.

Route by route

Frontex collects detailed information on eight routes taken by undocumented migrants and smugglers. The agency counts the number of “detections” of migrants on each route, in collaboration with European member states. Frontex starts and coordinates so-called “joint operations” between member states, that focus on reducing the number of migrants on routes or on part of a route.

"Immigrants appear in the news just when they come to this side," says Amparo Gonzalez, researcher with the Spanish National Research Council. He analysed the habits of Senegalese immigrants on their way to Europe in the Mafe Project, an international collaboration.

In interviews conducted with migrants to several European countries the same pattern emerges: all try it more than once, a wall does not stop them.

The border between Turkey and Greece is a case in point. Over the last four years, one in three migrants who entered Europe crossed there, according to data from Frontex. In late 2010, it accounted for two thirds of the detections, excluding those at European airports. During that period, the route via land, which is less dangerous, was the most used.

For this reason, Frontex coordinated border guards from almost every member state in the Joint Operation Poseidon, which started in 2010. Less than a year later, in 2011, the Greek government began the construction of a 12-kilometre fence along its border with Turkey, near the town of Oresteia. It was completed in December 2012. In two years, identified undocumented migrants dropped from 55,000 to 32,000.

However, Frontex does not collect data on casualties. In 2010, one migrant died for every 200 who tried. In 2012, it was one in 30, according to the data analysed in this investigation.

Frontex itself, in its "risk analysis" reports for the third quarter of 2012, gave some hints about what was happening: a change of route from land to sea.

"The operations have caused a weak displacement effect," the report explains, from the land border between Turkey and Greece to the sea route and towards the border between Turkey and Bulgaria.

This slight movement quickly became a dramatic change. As detailed in the Frontex report for the first four months of 2013, there was a record number of attempted entries along the Aegean Sea front of Turkey during this period.

During summer, with its good weather conditions, the area officially became a new "hot spot" for migrant entry. Thus the "weak displacement" quickly grew. During the whole of 2013, 11,800 illegal crossings were detected, as many as in the three previous years combined.

New routes – for migrants and their 'facilitators'

This process didn’t just happen on the eastern Mediterranean route. According to Frontex data to which this investigation had exclusive access (it will be published later in April), 40,000 migrants crossed on the central Mediterranean route in 2013, a fourfold increase from 2012.

This route is, and has always been, the most dangerous. For every hundred migrants detected by Frontex, our data shows that more than four migrants die.

Data from the first two months of 2014 show a tenfold increase in migrants using the central Mediterranean route aiming for Italy. From 1 January to 28 February this year 4,776 people made the sea journey from Libya. For the same period last year, 449 migrants were registered.

Facilitators, another term for smugglers of migrants, are another reason for this increase.

Christer Zettergren, a former Red Cross secretary general, runs the intelligence unit at the Swedish Migration authority. His unit collects and analyses data on migrant flows, and reports to the government and EU partners. "There are clearly more facilitators seizing a business opportunity at the moment," he says.

"Clearly facilitators have noted the greater chance for migrant boats to be picked up in the Sicily Channel by Italian surveillance ships," he says. "This is of course how they 'sell' and pitch their offer, driving a larger demand for their 'product'. But greater demand also tempts facilitators to take higher risks selling trips even though the waves are bad."

Italy launched the operation Mare Nostrum in October last year as a result of the Lampedusa disaster. The horrific event also led the EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem to call for a search and rescue mission stretching from Spain to Cyprus to be coordinated by Frontex.

Christer Zettergren also expects more people to cross over from Turkish shores to the Greek archipelago. There is an unmet need in Turkey, he says, where many Syrians are waiting. According to interviews conducted by Frontex, Sweden is the main destination. Norway is also on the list.

The advantages of the Turkey-to-Greece route from a migrant’s perspective are the short distance to cross (about 20 kilometres to reach Lesbos from Turkey, compared to 300km to Lampedusa from Libya) and the low probability of getting your fingerprints registered upon entering Greece.

Several sources also mentioned that migrants from African countries now make the journey to Turkey by foot via Iran.

A standard setup is to fly from Nairobi to Tehran, then continue by land to the mostly Kurdish city of Van in eastern Turkey. During winter the conditions can be harsh with freezing temperature and heavy snowfall. The last stop on this route before the EU is usually Izmir, a port city by the Aegean Sea.

The Migrants' Files is a project by datajournalism agencies Journalism++ SAS, Journalism++ Stockholm andDataninja ; media outlets Neue Zürcher Zeitung, El Confidencial, Sydsvenskan and Radiobubble as well as freelance journalists Jean-Marc Manach and Jacopo Ottaviani. The project is partially financed by JournalismFund.eu.