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 on 20 September 2016.

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.

  • 'Understanding the dynamics of Migration to Greece and the EU: Drivers, decisions and destinations' - Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis (MEDMIG) Research Brief No. 2, September 2016 (PDF)
  • 'Boat migration across the Central Mediterranean: Drivers, decisions and destinations' - Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis (MEDMIG) Research Brief No. 3, September 2016 (PDF)