Europe’s Migration Balance Sheet During The First Year Of The Arab Spring


By Fatma Yilmaz Elmas

The data for 2011 suggests that during the year, more than 58,000 migrants reached Europe by sea. The same data also records that more than 1500 migrants perished in the waters of the Mediterranean while trying to reach the shores of Europe. Although 2011 has become known as the “mostly deadly” year for travelling between Africa and Europe, this was not on a scale which measures up to the expectations of the migrants, most of them from Tunisia and Egypt, nor to the fears of Europeans about the wave of immigration.


The arrival of the Arab Spring at the start of 2011 caused different anxieties on both sides of the Mediterranean. The political disorder in North Africa and the Middle East uprooted millions of people on the southern side of the Mediterranean and plunged Europe into a process that ranged from an immigrant crisis to one of confidence. But the statistics regarding travel from Africa to Europe show that the journey to the shores of Europe was not worth its cost, but that it also did not reach levels which would justify the anxieties of European politicians and their constituents. When the fact that 58,000 immigrants who arrived on the shores of Europe during 2011 is contrasted with the 30,000 or so asylum-seekers who seek refuge in Sweden each year, the fever which gripped Europe was disproportionate

It is a pity that similar figures are not as easily available for those people on the Mediterranean high seas who fail to reach Europe. The number of those who lose their lives on the shores of Europe is variously estimated at between 1,500 and 1,800. Some people claim that that the hypocritical attitude of the EU toward the situation in Northern Africa is responsible for the increase in the statistics, others that Europe’s main concern is not so much to secure refuge for those who have lost their homes but rather to block uncontrolled immigration.

From the Arab Spring to the EU’s internal crisis

Following the uprisings in Tunisia and Libya last year, thousands of migrants crossed the Mediterranean and sought refuge in the countries of Europe. Italy was the main gateway into Europe via the Mediterranean, and its island of Lampedusa has become the target for the refugees, most of them Tunisian and Libyan. The debate in Europe has gone beyond the migration problem and turned into a question of EU solidarity. In the first three months of the uprisings, Italy received more than 20,000 refugees but it did not receive the response it expected from other EU member in response to it calls for a common asylum policy and practical assistance, and it was accused of whipping up alarm. Because the other members of the EU were not inclined to seek a joint solution to the problem, Italy took the easy way out which was to invoke the Schengen agreement and grant the refugees the right to free movement within the EU. Former French President Sarkozy retaliated by claiming that the migrants were endangering the right of free movement of EU citizens within Europe. The crisis that started with Italy granting the asylum-seekers Schengen visas eventually forced France and Denmark in particular to reinstate border controls. The crisis and the way the EU handled the Arab Spring eventually started to cost the EU a loss of international prestige. Italy and France then halted this by issuing a joint call for Schengen to be overhauled. Nonetheless, the EU had once more flunked a test of its solidarity.

Marie Martin compares the inability of the EU to respond to the immigrant problem with an EU-wide policy to a ping-pong game played between Italy, Malta, and France. Alas, those caught in the middle are refugees seeking asylum. This is why the EU has been the target of criticisms claiming that in the asylum-seeker crisis which followed the Arab Spring, its chief concern has not been to provide humanitarian protection to displaced persons but to prevent unauthorized migration.

The conflicting responses given by the leaders of Europe at the time of the uprisings to the quest of people in the region for democracy and the wave of migrants has seemed to some to be the language of double standards. On one hand, the EU and the leaders of Europe were proclaiming their support for the calls for liberty and democracy. But at the same time, they were trying to exclude asylum-seekers from the region. So there are discussions assuming this European attitude of double standards has contributed to a record number of people seeking their aspirations across the waters of the Mediterranean and at Europe’s borders.

The EU Commission states in its policy paper “A Global Approach to Migration,” which was revised in November 2011, that from now on it has adopted a “migrant-focused” approach. The philosophy of the new approach would essentially not concern flows, stocks, and destinations but be concerned with human beings, but it incorporates practices which make the policy visible and political slogans. Because of this Elspeth Guild remarks that the single EU joint policy introduced in 2011 to deal with this issue seems to have been reorganized and expanded so that Frontex, the EU border protection agency, can prevent incidents in the Mediterranean from reaching the EU’s shores. The most obvious reason of the inconsistency between the EU’s rhetoric and practices is skepticism over whether most of the migrants from North Africa seeking asylum in Europe are fleeing from political oppression. The belief prevails among the European elite that most of those who come to Europe leave for economic reasons and intend to find work. So the word “bogus” is applied to most of the asylum seekers. This is why despite a growing number of applications for asylum, there been a decrease in the numbers being accepted.

Which Europe?

The Arab Spring has not yet been concluded. Events in Syria in particular are harbingers that new asylum-seekers are likely to join the existing ones. There are at present more than one million Iraqi refugees who have been living in Syria since 2006. People who fled from the civil war there after the American occupation are now caught in the cross-fire of the conflicts in Syria. The U.N. has been trying to provide humanitarian assistance to the region through the High Commission for Refugees, but statements indicate that more international aid is needed. It is clear that in the present North Africa refugee crisis, the U.N. has had to work with too small a budget. So it is not difficult to predict European anxieties over the worsening situation in Syria.

But if one looks at what an ordinary “Mohammed of Tunisia” has to say about what he experienced during his journey to Europe and after it, one sees that as far as the refugees are concerned, Europe does not promise hope. If one reads the interview of Mohammed Munadi in the Guardian about the story of his escape from the Arab spring, he describes many details of what happened to him in Lampedusa ranging from the ten days he was held in the open harbor to the conditions of the refugee camp, and says the conditions show the other face of Europe. Mohammed set out, risking his life, on a journey toward hope but the final words in his report are “Was this the Europe I was going to die for?”

Those who have analyzed conditions in the refugee camps and the policies about the recent migration flows have most probably felt the same disappointment, and so they express this criticism: “The real danger does not come from being in the hands of people engaged in human trafficking, it comes from the EU’s border policies.”

In conclusion, it seems that the migrant issue in Europe, which has mostly been caught between national anxieties and human rights, since the Arab Spring has required a more strategic answer, one which can go beyond bureaucratic habits of thought. But, as Richard Youngs puts it, neither more European money nor labor market access for the countries of the Mediterranean do not amount to a single strategic answer.

Fatma Yilmaz-Elmas, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania/USA
Researcher, USAK Center for EU Studies & Center Associate, University of Pittsburgh, EU Center of Excellence

Turkish version of this article was published in ANALIST Journal.

Fatma Yilmaz-Elmas, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania/USA
Researcher, USAK Center for EU Studies & Center Associate, University of Pittsburgh, EU Center of Excellence


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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