Executive Summary

Since the late 1990s, there have been efforts by the European Union to create common policies in order to regulate migration and to provide effective external border surveillance. However, every year more people try to reach European soil for a number of reasons, such as fleeing armed conflicts, human rights abuses, starvation, and economic conditions. While some of them have the opportunity to use legal channels, the majority do not have this chance and must put their lives into danger to reach Europe.

European Union states came to an agreement in October 1997, which came into force in May 1999 with the Treaty of Amsterdam, that they would more closely co-operate on migration, asylum, and visa issues. However, it was not before the early 2000s, when the mass irregular movement of people from Libya to Italy became more manifest, that the subject of migration became a major topic on the policy agendas of EU states. However, up until the Syrian Civil War the main concern was not the actual numbers of migrants irregularly traveling by boat to Europe. Until recently only about 10% of irregular migrants entered the EU by sea, whereas the rest would use regular means of transport, such as air travel using forged documents, cars, buses, trains, etc. This has changed since 2015, when more than one million people crossed using irregular means from Turkey to Greece. What has drawn the attention of the media is the spectacle of ‘boat people’ drowning in their hundreds in their efforts to reach Southern European states, while EU policymakers have been mainly concerned with how to secure their borders against this open transgression of nation-state sovereignty. It is estimated that 33,000 people have lost their lives in their efforts to reach Europe since 2000.

Despite news of boat migrants mostly concerning those between Greece–Turkey, and Italy–Libya in recent years, there are additional migratory routes into Europe which have been used by irregular migrants for years. However, the popularity of these paths change from time by time for different reasons. The purpose of this paper is to analyse to what extent EU migration and border policies affect irregular migrants in terms of changing their routes into EU countries.

The migrant routes to Europe that so far have been identified by Frontex and other actors are:

  • Western African Route
  • Western Mediterranean Route
  • Central Mediterranean Route
  • Eastern Mediterranean Route
  • Western Balkan Route
  • Circular Route from Albania to Greece
  • Eastern Borders Route

Migration flows and the shifting of the routes that migrants use are undeniably dependent on a number of external factors such as wars on the European periphery and the modi operandi of smuggling networks. However, in this article we argue that migration flows change their routes primarily in relation to the policies implemented by the EU. This changing of routes finally pushes migrants to use the harder-to-regulate Central Mediterranean Route, where the number of deaths is higher, partly due to geographical conditions but also due to the unwillingness of Frontex to conduct search and rescue operations. At the same time, human smuggling networks have created new routes to Europe that entail higher risks for refugees and migrants. Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri, in an interview given to Der Spiegel in June 2016, said that “Egypt is becoming the new hotspot for human smugglers. The route is extremely dangerous, the journey often takes longer than ten days.”