A man lifts his son in the air after reaching Lesvos, having crossed from the coast of Turkey to Greece. A man lifts his son in the air after reaching Lesvos, having crossed from the coast of Turkey to Greece. Photo credit: ©UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
Beyond ‘mass movement’: understanding the dynamics of migration into Greece
by Heaven Crawley September 2016

In 2015, a million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in search of safety and a better life. The vast majority (84%) of these people arrived by sea to Greece, crossing the Aegean from departure points dotted along the Turkish coast. In the last four months of 2015 the narrative of Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ – which had been dominated by the stories of hundreds of people drowning in the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy earlier in the year – came to be defined instead by stories of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people arriving every day on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Kos and Chios. Images of boats carrying desperate men, women and children landing on the beaches, to be met by volunteers who had travelled to Greece to assist with the humanitarian effort, and of celebrities and politicians visiting to see what was happening for themselves, filled newspapers around Europe and across the world.

But these stories of ‘mass movement’ into Greece conceal a much more complex picture. Migration policy is currently driven by moral and political panic, patchy knowledge and broad assumptions about the people at the heart of the story: refugees and migrants themselves. Understanding the dynamics of migration across the Aegean provides an insight into the needs, fears and aspirations of those on the move, enables a more effective humanitarian response and challenges political and media representations of refugees and migrants as an undifferentiated mass.

Since September 2015 a team of researchers led by Coventry University has been examining the dynamics, determinants, drivers and infrastructures underpinning recent migration across, and loss of life in, the Mediterranean.+The MEDMIG project is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department for International Development (DFID). Further information about the project can be found on our website: www.medmig.info. Our research in Greece took place between September 2015 and January 2016, when arrivals reached their peak. During that time we interviewed 215 refugees and migrants in Athens and Lesvos, and 28 stakeholders from government, international organisations and civil society. We were also able to observe events as they unfolded, including political and policy responses at the local, national and international levels. This article provides an overview of what we found, focusing on the reasons why people are on the move, the complex array of factors that shape the journeys they make and the need for safe and legal access to protection.

Why people move

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 90% of those arriving in Greece in 2015 came from just three countries, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. When we asked our respondents to explain why they had decided to leave their home countries or the countries in which they were living, the vast majority (88%) cited conflict, persecution and human rights abuses. The circumstances under which people have been forced to leave vary considerably by both country of origin and in relation to the individual, familial and group characteristics of our respondents. Some people have been targeted for their involvement in conventional political activity, or the activities of family members. Others, the majority of those from Syria, left because the violence had become intolerable and because they feared for their safety and that of their families. Often caught between competing forces (the Assad regime, the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Islamic State (IS) and others), and subject to almost daily barrel bombings, sniper fire and other attacks, many had left to find a future and a better life, particularly for their children.

Syria is not the only country in conflict: indeed, there is a striking similarity in the experiences of those from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom described situations of both generalised conflict and violence targeted at specific groups, often based on religion or ethnicity. In addition to these general experiences of conflict, three key issues affected a significant proportion of those interviewed, namely IS, kidnapping and forced conscription. More than a quarter (28%) of respondents talked about the impact on their lives of the arrival of IS, particularly in Syria but also in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Many respondents described experiencing detention and torture and being forced to witness beheadings. They expressed grave concern for the safety of their families, particularly women (wives, sisters, daughters) who were perceived to be non-compliant with strict Sharia laws concerning their dress and behaviour. Respondents from Syria and Iraq in particular also described kidnapping as an increasingly common threat to their safety and that of their families. In Eritrea, Syria and Iran, forced conscription into the government army, militia or rebel force was a major factor underlying the decision to leave. Eritreans in particular described military conscription as a form of forced or slave labour, with poor working conditions, low or no salary and no prospects of release.

Conflict has a huge impact on people’s ability to make a living by killing primary breadwinners, destroying businesses and making it impossible to travel to work. It also has a major impact on the economic infrastructure of a country, significantly increasing the prices of basic goods and commodities. In Syria, price increases have been exacerbated by internal displacement and the movement of large numbers of people to some of the safer cities. Many of those who leave situations of conflict find themselves in very difficult economic circumstances in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as a result of limited rights, exploitation by employers and discrimination in the labour market (and beyond). These circumstances propel them onwards. A third (34%) of respondents had moved on for what might typically be understood as economic reasons: they were running out of money, found it impossible to secure employment or were working long hours for very little pay. With the passage of time and in the absence of a resolution to the conflicts in their home countries, respondents told us that they had grown increasingly concerned about the impacts on their families, and especially their children, many of whom had been out of school for many years or had health issues.

It is clear that the drivers of migration to Greece are multifaceted, and there is often overlap between ‘forced’ and ‘economic’ factors. This poses a significant challenge, both for policy-makers – who need to find ways of squeezing complex human experiences into a series of narrowly defined categories – and for those providing humanitarian assistance, who find themselves working with people who may have been on the move for years, living in poverty and fear, and lacking access to even basic healthcare and education.

Journeys and decision-making

Media coverage of the arrival of refugees and migrants in Greece gives the impression of a linear, uninterrupted movement of people heading towards Europe. This is often represented through graphics depicting arrows from North Africa and the Middle East into Greece and Italy. +See, for example, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-35486655 in the UK and  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/world/europe/a-massmigration-crisis-and-it-may-yet-get-worse.html?_r=0 in the US. Many more examples can be found through a simple google search of ‘migration to Europe’. This representation is, however, grossly misleading. Our research instead indicates complex movement in terms of the routes taken, the number of countries crossed, the mix of regular and irregular movement within the whole journey and the points in the journey at which the services of a smuggler are engaged. Migration into Europe is made up of distinct ‘sub-flows’ from many countries and regions, and includes individuals and families with diverse trajectories. These flows merge in Turkey and Libya, explaining, in part at least, the magnitude of arrivals in Greece and Italy in 2015. There are Syrians coming directly from Syria and from the Gulf countries, where they had been labour migrants, and others were living as refugees in Lebanon or Turkey. Afghans may come directly from Afghanistan, but also from Iran or from other countries where they have been living for many years, or may even have been born.

It is clear from our research that the process by which refugees and migrants make decisions about where to go is highly complex and contingent on a range of variables. The asylum and migration policies of different European countries appear to play a relatively minor role: refugees and migrants have only partial information about migration policies in particular countries, and more than a fifth (22%) of those we interviewed in Greece told us they did not know which country they wanted to go to or were heading to ‘Europe’. This was particularly the case for those with limited education, some of whom were unaware that Europe comprises different countries. For them, as for the majority of respondents, the most important priority was to reach a country in which they felt safe. Where specific migration policies were cited as influencing decisions, these were more often related to securing refugee status and opportunities for family reunification than welfare benefits or support. In fact, we found that the single most important factor above all others shaping and informing the decision about where to go is the presence of family members or other social contacts (friends, acquaintances) in European countries. Nearly two-thirds (59%) of those who mentioned a preferred destination had connections in specific European countries, and said that this was an important factor influencing their journey. This was particularly evident among Syrian respondents, many of whom maintained almost daily contact with relatives and friends (by telephone, Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber), but could also be seen among Afghans (travelling both directly from Afghanistan and from Iran) and Iraqis.

The need for safe and legal routes

The situation in Greece has changed dramatically in the period since we conducted our research. By the end of July 2016, there had been just over a quarter of a million arrivals by sea to Europe, the majority (62.5%) crossing to Greece. However, although more people arrived in the first seven months of 2016 than in the same period in 2015 (160,000 compared to 130,000), the vast majority arrived in the first three months of the year. Since then, only 8,770 refugees and migrants have crossed the sea to Greece, compared with 117,662 in the same period in 2015, a fall of 93%.

The reasons for the dramatic fall in arrivals to Greece since March 2016 lie not in improvements in the countries from which refugees and migrants originate (in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan the situation has arguably deteriorated over recent months) but rather in the introduction of policies at the national and European Union (EU) levels designed to contain refugees and migrants in Turkey and Greece, thereby stemming the flow into other parts of Europe and, in turn, reducing the political crisis with which migration across the Mediterranean has come to be associated. It is not only increased security introduced as part of the EU–Turkey deal which has made the difference. Many of those who had been intending to travel to Europe from Turkey have decided not to make the dangerous journey across the Aegean for fear of being trapped in Greece, with the prospect of detention, no jobs and limited access to asylum.

Given the limitations of space it is not possible to explore these developments in detail here. The interface between refugee and migrant flows and the policies of EU Member States is a focus of our final report. Nonetheless, the evidence presented here on the drivers, decision-making and destinations of those who crossed the Aegean to Greece in the final months of 2015 suggests that the pressures that propel people forward on their journeys are likely to increase rather than decrease with the passage of time.

Whilst conflict, human rights abuses and persecution continue to drive people from their homes, efforts on the part of the EU to significantly expand the opportunities for refugees to access protection through safe and legal routes have met with limited success. In May 2015 the Commission presented a comprehensive European Agenda on Migration which recognised the need to prevent those fleeing conflict and in need of protection having to resort to the criminal networks of smugglers. Yet since then just 8,268 people have been resettled, mainly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The European Commission has acknowledged the need to significantly increase the scale and speed of resettlement, and on 13 July announced that a new EU Resettlement Framework would be established to ensure orderly and safe pathways to Europe for people in need of international protection. It remains to be seen whether this will be delivered in practice, but even if it is the scale of resettlement is likely to be insufficient to address the considerable, and growing, need. Around two-thirds of the people crossing the Aegean to Greece in 2016 are women and children seeking to join male family members (husbands, brother, sons) who successfully made the journey to Europe in 2015. As of the end of July, 57,182 people were stranded in Greece, many of whom have been unable to access procedures for asylum or family reunification. By mid-June, the refugee relocation scheme, which the European Commission has explicitly described as an act of European solidarity and responsibility-sharing, has relocated just 1,503 people from Greece, 2.2% of the 66,400 originally agreed.

The evidence presented here sheds light on the complexity of migration flows across the Aegean from Turkey to Greece. Contrary to the dominant political and media narratives, which have presented this movement as a single, linear flow, our research reveals significant variations in terms of the drivers of migration and the factors that inform refugee and migrant decision-making, as well as their preferred destinations. The extent to which policies designed to deter refugees and migrants can have the effect that is intended or assumed is challenged by the ad hoc and dynamic decision-making processes of people on the move. To address such diverse and composite flows requires a coherent policy response that is also nuanced, tailored and targeted. Deterrence and containment policies aimed at immobilising people in countries of origin or transit without resettlement or humanitarian assistance will only deepen the human suffering. The absence or slow realisation of safe and legal access to protection (most notably resettlement and family reunification) simply increases the demand for smugglers, pushing people into taking ever more risky routes into and within Europe.

Heaven Crawley is Chair in International Migration for the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

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