Participants at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants will this week hear the findings of a ground-breaking research project, which identifies why refugees and migrants left their home countries to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. 

An international research team co-led by Dr Nando Sigona at the University of Birmingham worked on the study, one of the largest of its kind and part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded Mediterranean Migration Research Programme.  The study - ‘Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis’ (MEDMIG) - included 500 interviews with newly arrived refugees and migrants about their motivations, expectations and journeys. 

Over three months when the number of arrivals was at its peak, researchers spoke to people who had arrived on the shores of Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean Route from Turkey, as well those who had crossed into Europe using the Central Mediterranean Route from Libya in North Africa.  Their findings on these two routes will be discussed at the UN Summit in New York tomorrow (20 Sep). 


Dr Nando Sigona from the University of Birmingham is the author (with Simon McMahon) of the report on the Central Mediterranean route.  

He said: “The migration flow across the Central Mediterranean route is diverse in many ways. The experiences of refugees and migrants vary, but what is common for most of them is that journeys are getting longer and sea crossings more dangerous. Journeys are often marked by violence and exploitation, especially in Libya. 

“Over 75 per cent of the people we spoke to who had crossed Libya explicitly referred to experiences of physical violence. Over a quarter spoke of experiences related to death in some way. The sea journey was considered to be the only way out of Libya: those boarding the boats did not think that there was any other way of escaping.” 

Despite the frequent portrayal of people making this journey as ‘economic migrants’, researchers found that only 38 per cent cited economic factors as a reason for leaving their home country. There was often an overlap between forced and other forms of migration. 

Many interviewees said their ability to earn money and provide for their families had been curtailed due to conflict, violence and political persecution.  They had often started their journey months or even years before, eventually travelling to Libya, attracted by the opportunities for work in the oil and construction sectors. Many felt that they had no choice other than to move to Europe due to the escalating violence in Libya since 2014. 

Although the arrival of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean during 2015 was often presented as a single, uninterrupted movement of people to Europe – often using graphics depicting arrows from North Africa and the Middle East into Greece and Italy – the researchers found that these stories and images of ‘mass movement’ into Europe conceal a much more complex picture. 

“The vast majority of refugees and migrants who are on the move remain in their own countries and regions of origin. Those who came to Europe in 2015 did so principally because they had been driven from their homes and found it impossible to rebuild their lives elsewhere”, says Professor Heaven Crawley from Coventry University, leader of the MEDMIG project and co-author of the report on the Eastern Mediterranean route also released today.  

"People told us that they left their countries because the violence had become intolerable and they feared for their safety and that of their families. These included a large number of Syrians, subject to almost daily barrel bombings, sniper fire and other attacks.” 

The researchers also found that increased migration across the Mediterranean was closely associated with difficulties in securing access to protection or work, due to newly introduced visas as well as cascading border closures in the countries people had previously travelled to.  

As a consequence, refugees and migrants were channelled towards Turkey and Libya – where they often could not secure a status or livelihood - and often had no choice other than to use smugglers to get out of these countries and find safety elsewhere.

"Our research has found that smugglers are a more complex phenomenon than typically assumed," says Dr Franck Duvell, of the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and co-author of the report on the Eastern Mediterranean Route. 

"Whilst they profit from, and often exploit, the needs of refugees and migrants, they are also often the only ones who help people escaping war, terror or persecution. They can only thrive due to the absence of alternative legal migration channels. And whether we like it or not, often smugglers are an essential part of the journey.” 

The final report of the MEDMIG project will be launched in Brussels on 3 November. 

For information and interview requests, please contact Tony Moran, International Communications Manager, University of Birmingham on +44 (0)121 414 8254 or +44 (0)782 783 2312. For out of hours media enquiries, please call: +44 (0) 7789 921 165

  1. The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  2. Select quotes of interviewees:

"I was living in Damascus. The situation was bad. I was working as a civil servant for 16 years. We were living on rent, expensive rent. The schools closed down. The regime was dropping bombs every day. There was no future there. I decided to leave one year ago from Syria for my children. Everybody leaves Syria for the sake of their children.” (Syrian man aged 35 travelling to Germany to join his wife and four children.)

“I decided to leave because I was left alone with my children. My husband was in prison and later killed. He was a journalist in Eritrea." (Eritrean woman aged 35, travelled the Central Mediterranean route through Libya to Italy.)    

"I wanted to go to a country where we can live as human beings. I wanted to live in a country with peace and justice. I had no specific country in mind.” (Afghan man aged 26 years travelling through the Eastern Mediterranean route.)

"I didn’t try to apply for visa. Nobody gets a visa. I wish we could pay the embassy instead of the smuggler in order to come here.” (Young Syrian man travelling alone through the Eastern Mediterranean route.)

“They took us to a very isolated place and we lived in a stable for a month, where there were also animals. We couldn't leave. On the farm there were other women who had also arrived from Nigeria. The men who were to supposed to watch us raped us many times.” (Nigerian woman aged 25, talking about Libya.) 

  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.
  2. MEDMIG is an ESRC-DfID funded research project led by the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University (UK), in collaboration with the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Research into Superdiversity (UK), the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford (UK), ELIAMEP (Greece), FIERI (Italy), People for Change Foundation (Malta) and Yasar University (Turkey). 
  3.  MEDMIG is one of eight projects that form part of the larger ESRC Mediterranean Migration Research Programme. For more information, visit Warwick University's Mediterranean Migration Research Programme.
  4. On 19 September UN General Assembly will host a high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.
    On the margins of the General Assembly, on 20 September, the United States President Obama is hosting the Leaders' Summit on Refugees, alongside co-hosts Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden, which will appeal to governments to pledge significant new commitments on refugees. While the Leaders' Summit will focus on refugees, not migrants, the General Assembly High-Level Summit will address large movements of both. The two events will complement one another. Coventry University is the only British University that has been accredited to attend the Summit.
  5. Professor Crawley and other members of the research team will be speaking about the findings of their research at a side-panel on ‘Human rights protection in the context of large movements of refugees and migrants’ organised by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to be held on Tuesday 20 September 10:00am to 13:00pm in Room 12 UNHQ.