The current situation of migration in the European Union

Francesco Sorana
Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash
Published on December 20, 2019

In all parts of Europe there are worrying trends in the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants. It seems that Member States are now more focused on trying to dissuade the entry and the arrival of migrants into EU’s territory, patrolling the borders and the Mediterranean Sea and blocking irregular migrants. Migrants are often detained in prison-like conditions, while their asylum procedures slowly advance. This process often takes months before the applications are finally taken into account by competent authorities. This structural lack of efficiency in the EU and national asylum procedures has been criticized by many European scholars and NGOs, which have strongly called for an improved protection of migrants’ human rights, as also for basic health care, education, access to fair procedures and protection against arbitrary detention.

In 2018, in most European countries it has become more difficult for migrants and asylum seekers to be granted access to a humane treatment and fair conduct by national authorities. The Italian government adopted a Decree Law that abolished the humanitarian protection status and reformed the national reception system, limiting the access to public services and increasing the chances of rejection of asylum claims. The new residence permits cannot be changed with work permits anymore, and they have a shorter validity compared to the older ones. Italian and Austrian Ministers of the Interior also proposed to process refugees before being brought to shore, on board of ships. In July 2018, Hungarian authorities have implemented amendments that automatically reject the asylum claims of applicants coming from countries where they have not been subject of persecution. Together with Poland and Czech Republic, the Hungarian government voted against the “UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”. Other European countries, namely Italy, Latvia, Slovakia, Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia and Bulgaria abstained from voting.

Greek hotspots are still overloaded: almost 17,000 people are hosted in different reception centers and other facilities on the Aegean islands that could host altogether 6,338 people. As reported by several NGOs, there are documented cases such as that of the Samos hotspot which is hosting in “shameful conditions” six times as much people as its maximum capacity of 850 places. On the Balkan route, the UNHCR reported thousand cases of push-backs, abuses, threats and payment requests by border guards, police officers and national authorities in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, FYR of Macedonia, Hungary, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), on its “Periodic data collection on the migration situation in the EU” in late 2018 reported that only Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Poland were able to meet the necessary minimum reception capacity to host all the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers present in their national territory.

Estimates suggest that from 2000 to 2014 the total number of migrants who died in the attempt to enter Europe was over 22,000. As of the first half of 2019, over 18,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the migrant crisis in 2014. This means that from the beginning of the century, more than 40,000 people died in the attempt to enter in the European Union. Many European countries have recognized the inadequacy of their current immigration and asylum systems. The increasing trend of arrivals in 2015 showed all the weaknesses of the EU asylum system. Instead of addressing the needs of asylum seekers, countries such as France, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Spain have allocated more funds to strengthen border controls, patrols and surveillance. Furthermore, Italy and Spain have respectively adopted joint bilateral strategies with third countries such as Libya and Morocco, allocating finances for an increased control and border management capacity on the North African coasts by Libyan and Moroccan authorities.

Against the reestablishment of closed border policies, which could damage the asylum seekers’ right to access the international protection against inhuman treatment, the EU needs to agree on a new framework of cooperation between Member States on the protection of migrants and asylum seekers, and set up a new system that no longer penalizes EU’s ‘frontline’ countries. To restore solidarity and ensure the protection of human rights, EU Member States must rethink their national and shared approach to migration. This need has been confirmed by the fact that stricter border control proved to increase migrants’ vulnerability and eventually, to provide smugglers with more profitable ways to extort money from migrants. European states therefore must develop a new, clear, effective, legal and shared migration system.

The Council of Europe, among others, stressed the need to implement all the Search and Rescue (SAR) resources of the Member States, in order to avert the loss of human lives on the Mediterranean routes. These resources also include NGOs boats, which should be able to enter ports and carry out rescue operations without any interference by Member States. In Italy, political right-wing parties attacked the work of NGOs boats, claiming that many organizations were collaborating with Libyan smugglers, thus breaking the code of conduct imposed by the Italian government for what concerns SAR operations. Political authorities accused NGOs of being ‘sea taxis’ involved in a sort of illegal ‘migration business’. In any case, all the accusations about any collaboration with smugglers have been dismissed by national courts.

Actually, NGOs played an important role in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, managing to rescue some 33,190 out of 82,197 migrants that crossed the sea in the first 6 months of 2017. The Council of Europe also suggested that cooperation between Member States should be improved in regard of the protection of human rights. Moral imperatives aside, Member States should ensure the right to life and the principle of non-refoulement, access to international protection, adequate reception rules, legal aid and interpreters, in order to remain consistent with the European and international standards.

The EU should also expand and reinforce SAR operations in the Mediterranean, by sharing efforts that have often been mostly carried out by southern and frontline countries, and make more resources available for the Member States and local powers to strengthen their capacity to welcome refugees, rather than outsourcing the burden of migration to countries outside the EU.  


Austria, Italy Propose Processing Refugees on Ships: DW: 15.09.2018

General Assembly Officially Adopts Roadmap For Migrants To Improve Safety, Ease Suffering: UN NEWS : 19.12.2018

Hellenic League for Human Rights. Conditions at Moria Are “Shameful”: 13.9.2018 

Desperate Journeys – Refugees and Migrants Arriving in Europe And At  Europe’s Borders: UNHCR: September 2018

Refugees Crossing From Bosnia ‘Beaten and Robbed by Croatian Police’ Shaun Walker in Velika Kladuša: The Guardian: 15.8.2018 

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Periodic Data Collection on the Migration Situation in the EU, November Highlights: 1 September – 31 October 2018. 

IOM Releases New Data on Migrant Fatalities Worldwide: Almost 40,000 Since 2000 

Nils Muižnieks, OpenDemocracy, Berlingske. “Europe can do more to protect refugees”. 2.9.2015

Council of Europe. Report 2018: Human rights of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers

Huddleston T. (2016), Time for Europe to get migrant integration right – Issue paper by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe

Fundamental Rights Report 2018 – FRA Opinions – European Union Agency For Fundamental Rights 

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