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A Close-Up Look at Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Deputy Director General for Legal Affairs at the Austrian Interior Ministry to Majalla: “Research plays an important role in evidence-based policy making.”

Migrants are escorted through fields by police as they are walked from the village of Rigonce to Brezice refugee camp on October 23, 2015 in Rigonce,, Slovenia. (Getty)

by Yasmine El-Geressi

Since 2015, Europe has experienced one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees from outside the continent in its history. Pushed by civil war, persecution, poverty and terror, and pulled by the promise of a better life in safer, more prosperous regions, scores of desperate people have escaped the Middle East and Africa, risking it all along the way.

Two years ago, Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy photographed washed up on a beach in Turkey, stirred the continent’s conscience. Although much has changed since the height of the crisis in 2015 and it has largely been out of international headlines, migration remains at the heart of Europe’s political and social crisis, and this reality isn’t about to change.

To deal with the challenge of this unprecedented migrant influx the EU is acting on different fronts and has agreed on a range of measures. Efforts quickly enacted two years ago at the height of Syria’s civil war are faltering. A burden-sharing scheme meant to lessen the pressure on “frontline” states was agreed by all EU states in 2015, has shown slow progress and implementation has lagged. Of the 160,000 refugees due to be accepted under the agreement, fewer than 21,000 have been relocated as of July this year.

A separate controversial EU deal with Turkey forged last year to stop the tide of migrants and refugees fleeing to the continent from the Middle East has also proved problematic. In return for Turkey’s help in stemming the flow of Syrians via Greece and the Balkans, Ankara was offered €6bn to assist with nearly 3 million refugees on its soil. The EU also pledged to take more Syrians over time. But as of February this year, only 3,565 people had been accepted by EU states from Turkey. The EU also signed an agreement with Afghanistan in October 2016 obliging the Afghan government to accept the return of an unlimited amount of asylum seekers being returned from EU member states.

And, this year, Italy has adopted an aggressive approach to halting migration across the Mediterranean from North Africa, working with the Libyan coast guard as well as tribes in southern Libya and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating off the country’s coast. Italy’s neighbors -France, Switzerland and Austria – in turn have shored up border security, with police sending migrants back to Italy. In August, the number of migrants arriving in Italy was 87% down on the previous year.

Although the overall number of refugees arriving in Europe has decreased, tens of thousands of migrants continue to pour into Europe. 138,360 migrants arrived through Italy, Greece, Spain and Bulgaria in January-September 2017 (UNHCR, 9 October 2017). This movement towards Europe continues to take a devastating toll on human life and the clampdown on Europe’s eastern borders has forced migrants to choose more dangerous routes as the death toll in the Mediterranean continues to rise. Since the beginning of 2017, over 2,700 people are believed to have died or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. These risks do not end once in Europe. Those moving onwards have reported numerous types of abuse, including being pushed back across borders. People seeking alternative routes have moved westward, seen in the recent spike in migrants arriving in Spain from northern Morocco, while others are turning in desperation to new destinations such as Yemen.

As the European Union continues to seek a long-term solution to the refugee crisis, the Austrian Interior Ministry and the Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum published a comprehensive examination into migration trends, social media and topography in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to better understand the complexities of the current dynamics of the refugee crisis.

Peter Webinger, Deputy Director General for Legal Affairs at the Austrian Interior Ministry and the report’s co-author, explained to Majalla that the Austrian government strives for “evidence-based policy making and thus research plays an important role.”

“We generally believe that research in the field of migration is important to support policy making. We have thus started to publish migration related research, which is made available on our website www.bmi.gv.at. Currently, the research focuses to a large extent on source countries of refugees,” he explained.


According the data published in the report, migrants from Syria (339,265), Iraq (130,015), and Afghanistan (186,595) accounted for more than half (52%) of the 1,260,350 asylum seekers who applied for international protection in the Member States of the European Union in 2016. A significant increase in the number of applicants from the three countries was observed between 2013 and 2016. By far the biggest increase was recorded between 2014 and 2015, when the flow of irregular migrants entering the EU reached unprecedented levels. The record surge in 2015 marked the largest annual flow of asylum seekers to Europe since 1985, making this wave of asylum seekers the biggest the continent has seen since World War II.

The conflict in Syria that followed 2011’s Arab Spring protests, continues to be by far the biggest driver of migration. About 2 million Syrians internally displaced by the end of 2012 and as the insurgency opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime intensified and the caliphate declared by the militant group ISIS continued to expand across Syria, this number of internally displaced persons grew to 6.6 million by the end of 2015 (Pew Global). Globally, Syria overtook Afghanistan as the main source of refugees worldwide, a position that the latter country was unfortunate enough to hold for more than three decades (UNHCR 2015). Afghanistan remains one of the most violent and unstable countries in the world, caught in a losing fight against both ISIS and the Taliban. Displacement is now at an all-time high, with one million people uprooted inside their own country and three million seeking safety in other countries (International Rescue Committee).

In Iraq, sectarian violence led to a total of 2.6 million internally displaced people within the country by the end of 2008. The number of Iraqis displaced within their country then declined, as the intensity of civil strife subsided. However, armed campaigns by ISIS soon drove more people from their homes. The number of internally displaced Iraqis rose from slightly less than a million in 2013 to more than 4.4 million by 2015. (Pew Global)

Asylum seekers from the three countries did not disperse equally across Europe, with some countries taking in many more asylum seekers than the European average. With 493,690 applicants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq registered in Germany in 2016, it recorded 74% of applicants in the EU Member States, followed by Greece (35,880).

The social fabric of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan societies are made up of various religious and ethnic groups. For example, the Iraqi population includes Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Armenians. The religious mix likewise is varied and includes Shi’a and Sunni Muslims (both Arab and Kurdish), Alawites, Christians (including Chaldeans and Assyrians), and Yazidis.

Although the influx of migrants will not drastically change the demographics of Europe any time soon, Peter Webinger told Majalla that countries who have accepted most asylum seekers since 2015 have “definitely experienced a change in demographics.”

Seizing on fear and anxiety over what unprecedented levels of immigration and demographic change could mean for the fabric of society, populist Right-wing parties have managed to win votes from across the political spectrum. The rise of the far-right parties in mainstream European politics and the rhetoric used to exploit the migration crisis, has further raised the concerns about the possible weakening of a shared national identity and social cohesion; stirring widespread debates over the failure of integration and multiculturalism.

So far, the main policy focus by European governments has been on saving lives at sea; providing emergency support to refugees and asylum seekers; strengthening border controls; improving international co-ordination and burden-sharing mechanisms. These actions are key and need to be further pursued and in some cases reinforced. But it is crucial that they are also accompanied by multi-dimensional measures designed to foster the integration and social inclusion of those refugees who are likely to stay in the host country.

The diverse mix of nationalities, ethnicities and religions as well as the diversity in motives for migration, individual profiles of asylum seekers and the concentration of inflows in just a few countries, means that the challenges of integration are significant, particularly given the pace of change. Successful integration requires comprehensive, customized policy instruments. It not only brings economic benefits, but it is also an important factor in fostering social cohesion.

More than four in five (82 %) of the asylum seekers in the EU in 2016 were less than 35 years old, those in the age range 18–34 years accounted for slightly more than half (51 %) of the total number, while nearly one third (32 %) of the total number of applicants were minors aged less than 18 years.
This age distribution of asylum applicants was common in all three of the countries examined, with the largest share of applicants being those aged 18–34. However, Afghanistan reported a higher proportion of asylum applicants less than 14 years old (17.9%). According to figures published by the European Union’s Eurostat agency, unaccompanied minors (classed as those under 18 years of age) from Afghanistan have filed far more asylum applications in Europe during the last two years than any other nationality.
The distribution of first time asylum applicants by sex shows that more men than women were seeking asylum. In Iraq and Syria 62% of asylum applicants were male. There was a slightly greater degree of gender inequality for applicants from Afghanistan, where 72% of the applicants were male.

These statics shed light on one crucial dimension of this crisis that has gone little-noticed. Young men in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are at greater risk of being coerced into joining fighting groups or being killed and therefore a disproportionate number of migrants are young, unaccompanied males. If these trends continue, they could affect the gender balance in certain age cohorts in European countries with smaller populations. Countries such as Austria, Sweden, Hungary and Norway could see their young adult population become more male. This unprecedented alteration in the young adult sex ratios of their societies could have long-term consequences as research has found a link between masculinized societies and higher levels of violence, insurgence and sexual violence against women.

While the humanitarian needs of the asylum seekers must remain at the forefront of our minds, policymakers in smaller European countries such as Sweden and Austria should also think and plan for the long-term consequences of gender imbalance.


Every second, 40,000 people type their queries and questions into Google. While web searches obviously capture the interests and beliefs of only a segment of the world’s population, they can nonetheless offer a unique snapshot into what people in different corners of the world have on their minds.

Peter Webinger told Majalla that in relation to migration, social media has been a “game changer”.
“Now people are communicating in real time, sharing information and organizing themselves,” he explained.

Smartphones are critically important for migrants and refugees both before and during irregular migration. Although internet search data and activity can only be used as an indicator of interest, when combined with data on migration and asylum, however, internet search patterns can be linked to movement. Therefore, exploring the relationship between online activity and forced migration flows could offer powerful insights into different dimensions of the migration crisis.

The report by the Austrian Interior Ministry examined the Google search trends for the Arabic, Dari and Pashto terms for “asylum,” “immigration,” “smuggling,” and “Europe” in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq between January 2014 and February 2017. Searches for the Arabic and Dari terms for asylum, immigration and smuggling spiked in 2015 in the three countries, mirroring the spike in refugees arriving in Europe during the same period. Consequently, it is assumed that these terms are not merely an aspiration search, but a practical one for those looking for assistance and advice.

These trends are also consistent with reports on Google search activity within Syria in 2015 when “immigration to Germany,” “asylum in Germany,” were listed as some of the top searches when the migration crisis in Europe began. A study released by the Pew Research Center in June of this year also found that the search terms used by Middle Easterners en route to Europe were close predictors of their movements. Arabic language searches for “Greece” in Turkey predicted many of the ups and downs of asylum applications in European countries.

Combined, these findings suggest that it might be useful for governments to start looking at digital footprints in addition to the other methods they use to map and monitor migration flows.

Peter Webinger also pointed to some of the pitfalls of social media, explaining to Majalla that the “issue is that there is also a lot of misinformation out there – particularly about the situation in Europe.”

It should come as no surprise, given our globalized world, that social media is being used by smugglers to spread misinformation and as a marketing tool. The ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have created lucrative opportunities for smugglers, whose new modus operandi aligns with the internet habits of young people, who comprise the majority of the refugees who brave the perilous journey across the sea.

According to the data published in the report by the Austrian interior ministry, over two thirds of Syrians and Iraqis are Facebook users, making it by far the most popular social networking site in the countries. (0.2% to 1.6% use LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter). The breakdown of the age and gender demographics correlate with the demographics of asylum seekers. For example, in Iraq, around 74% of Facebook users and 62% of asylum applicants are male, and the largest age group of Facebook users and asylum seekers in Syria and Afghanistan is 18 – 24 year olds.

The shocking scale of people trafficking was identified by Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC), which was established in February last year to tackle the crisis engulfing the EU. In just a year the EMSC said it had gathered information on 17,400 new migrant smugglers on top of the countless number already operating inside Europe. Europol, the EU’s crime-fighting agency, found that traffickers targeted vulnerable migrants with ‘attractive and unrealistic package deals’ on Facebook, including sea crossings, fake passports, sham marriages and false work permits, to lure migrants into paying thousands of pounds to reach Europe. Investigators discovered 1,150 social media accounts suspected of being used to recruit migrants – a huge rise on the 148 accounts identified in 2015. 

In September this year, Leonard Doyle, a spokesperson for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), told a group of journalists on the sidelines at the UN General Assembly in New York that a wide, complex human-trafficking network has emerged from the migrant crisis, and it is being “turbocharged” by the ease with which criminal deals can be made on Facebook’s platforms. The UN says it doesn’t have the capacity to attempt a wide campaign to infiltrate and map the network of pages as after one page is shut down, smugglers can easily reopen another and therefore many pages continue to go unreported.

Facebook has come under increasing pressure to take more responsibility for the content posted on the site and been accused of “facilitating harm and misery.” The social networking giant has said that it relies on individuals reporting harmful pages to its moderators, and doesn’t currently have other more effective systems in place. While the company agreed that the model wasn’t enough to address the problem, it said that the technology to automatically flag human-smuggling content does not yet exist. As of now, Facebook has effective tools that reliably block videos of beheadings and pornographic videos from ever making it online, but content that is more nuanced is harder to detect automatically.


Peter Webinger explained that while the Austrian Ministry of Interior monitor migration closely, it is also “necessary to visualize the relevant data.”

He explained that the Austrian government is sharing data that is relevant for the broader audience through a series of publications. “In general, we believe that a comprehensive statistical analysis generates a better understanding of the ongoing trends,” said Webinger.

Statistics have long been essential to the planning and development of policy strategies and the first step towards managing a situation is always a deeper, data-driven understanding of the situation at hand. In this context, data on asylum backgrounds and trends in addition to social media and internet activity can serve in helping governments to predict the quantity and the routes of refugees more accurately and give officials a better sense of what to expect, who to expect and how to respond.

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