The Human Highway to Europe: Roadblocks and Detours

The Human Highway to Europe: Roadblocks and Detours

The European Union is facing the largest migration crisis since the aftermath of World War II. Wars in Syria and Iraq are the immediate sources of displaced people seeking peace and prosperity in Europe. The large volume of migrants in a short period exceeds the ability and willingness of Europeans to process and accept migrants. The realization that unlimited numbers of migrants cannot be accepted has resulted in most EU countries imposing border controls that violate internal rules and possibly international agreements on the treatment of refugees. Mixed signals from EU leaders to prospective migrants have contributed to chaotic movement of people, injuries, deaths, and great frustration for migrants as well as Europeans. Disagreement among EU member countries about the total number of migrants to accept and how to allocate them among receiving countries has produced a severe strain on European unity.

In the early days of migration, leaders from Germany and Sweden made welcoming statements leaving the impression there would be no limits on migration to Europe. Later as the number of migrants became very large, and opposition to migration began to grow in receiving countries, various types of barriers to migration were imposed. Border controls were imposed by most countries. The Luxembourg village of Schengen, that gave its name to free movement of people across borders, was also the victim of border controls with Germany (Wall Street Journal March 25).EU officials distinguished between asylum seekers and economic migrants, and the latter were told to stay home. European Council President, Donald Tusk, stated emphatically: “I want to appeal to all potential illegal economic migrants wherever you are from: do not come to Europe. Do not believe the smugglers” (Wall Street Journal March 4). Asylum seekers from some countries were favored relative to those from other countries. Those from Syria and Iraq were given preference over migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other countries. Most recently, the EU has reached an agreement with Turkey to limit the total number of migrants to Europe and to return excess migrants to Turkey. The EU has pledged to accept up to 72,000 Syrian refugees, although there are currently 2.7 million Syrians residing in Turkey. (Wall Street Journal April 4, 2016).



Devastating wars in Syria and Iraq are the proximate sources of the migration crisis, but the full scope of the problem is much broader. Large numbers of people have already arrived in Europe from Afghanistan, Pakistan, other Middle East countries, and from Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa. On April 4th of this year, the first boats carrying migrants from Greece back to Turkey contained people primarily from Afghanistan and Pakistan (Wall Street Journal April 4). Afghans are seeking refugee status based on the long war in their country, but they are having trouble persuading European officials that they deserve asylum. Officials have devised rules of thumb to distinguish refugees from economic migrants, but many observers consider the distinction to be arbitrary. Migrants who do not qualify for refugee status become participants in the illegal human bazaar.



People migrate for many reasons, and it is convenient to separate their motives into factors that push them out of source countries (supply of migrants) and factors that pull them into destination countries (demand). Wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and poverty in those countries are push factors and relative peace and prosperity in Europe are pull factors. The push factors are powerful because the neighboring regions in the Middle East and Africa are among the poorest in the world, they have the highest birthrates, and they are experiencing extreme violence. Additional pull factors are an aging population in Europe and treaties that oblige signees to accept refugees if conditions are met. The pull factors are now being mitigated by recent terrorist acts in Europe.

However, after the large number of migrants caused many EU governments to impose border controls, EU officials invoked the distinction between asylum seekers fleeing from unsafe conditions and economic migrants who sought higher incomes. EU countries are obliged by treaty to grant refugee status to those asylum seekers who satisfy certain conditions. One interpretation of the conditions is that asylum seekers should not be sent back to countries where conditions are unsafe. There are no comparable obligations to accept economic migrants. Migrants must register and apply for refugee status, and EU officials have devised rules of thumb to determine eligibility. A far higher percentage of Syrians and Iraqis have been granted refugee status than Afghans, Pakistanis, Eritreans, and applicants from many countries (Economist 2016). For example, EU officials have decided that Afghanistan is a safe country to which asylum seekers can be returned, because the percentage of safe provinces is high enough relative to unsafe provinces. Critics have rejected these criteria as arbitrary, and this practice has increased the demand for counterfeit papers from Syria and Iraq.

Rules continue to change and become more restrictive. The latest restriction is a March 15 agreement between the EU and Turkey to limit the number of Syrian migrants accepted by the EU to 72,000, and to send back excessive migrants to Turkey. The agreement has not yet been approved by EU members, but it would compensate Turkey with 6 billion Euros, give Turks visa free access to the EU, and speed up the negotiating process for Turkish membership in the EU. Boats began returning migrants to Turkey on April 6, and most of the early returnees were Afghans and Pakistanis.


How many migrants will be accepted by the EU and how will they be distributed across receiving countries? This is a sensitive issue that may determine the future of the EU. Angela Merkel and European Commission chief, Jean Claude Junker, consider this to be a “European” question which will be determined at the EU level with quotas binding on member countries using “fair” criteria”. However, there is broad and growing opposition to migration and specifically to imposing quotas on specific countries. Leaders of Hungary and Slovakia have been outspoken on the issue, and they object on legal grounds. There is also opposition in the other Central and Eastern European countries that are among the lowest income members of the EU who have received few immigrants and have negligible Muslim populations that could ease assimilation of new arrivals. These relatively low income and low wage countries are also among the least favored destinations by migrants.

There is also increasing resistance to immigration in the richest EU countries. In recent elections, anti-immigrant parties have gained representation in both Germany and Sweden. In the April 11 referendum on a free trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine, Dutch voters defeated the proposal with strong support from anti-immigrant groups. The Netherland’s was one of the founding members of the EU, it is one of the richest member countries, and the free trade agreement had been approved earlier by 27 of the 28 members. In the forthcoming UK referendum on whether to leave the EU, public opinion polls show that authority to control immigration is the most important issue. Finally, bombings in Paris and Brussels by radical Muslim terrorists, some of whom had Syrian connections, strengthen resistance to accepting more immigrants from the Middle East.

An alternative to having European Union officials determine the total number and the distribution of immigrants by country is to allow individual member countries to make their own decisions. As opponents have stated, the European Union is an alliance of sovereign nations. It is not the United States of Europe. Decentralized decision-making would not reduce the magnitude of the problem, but it would make it easier to retain unity in the EU. Decentralization might also result in a better match between where migrants want to go and which countries are most willing and able to receive them.



Regardless of EU rules about immigration, there is ample evidence from the United States and elsewhere, that actual migration flows can dominate legal migration. Strong push and pull factors have caused millions of illegal migrants to move from Mexico and other Latin American countries to the U.S. A famous study of illegal immigrants by economist, Gordon Hanson, concluded that large scale migration dominated by economic incentives was sufficient to produce a well-integrated North American labor market. There is already massive illegal migration in the EU. Unlike residents and tourists, asylum seekers do not have the right to travel freely in the EU (Open Society). In response to the overwhelming movement of illegal migrants, most EU countries have imposed border restrictions, in violation of Schengen and EU rules. Migrants have risked their lives and savings, and they refuse to be stopped by rules. In desperation, they have become demanders of the services of smugglers.

Where there is a demand for smugglers, there will be a supply of smugglers, even if governments try to shut them down. The demand comes from people desperate to escape from violence and persecution, and many of them have access to money they can offer to middlemen for assistance. For some it is their own savings, for others it may be family money or money borrowed from friendly villagers. In response to this demand, a complex network has emerged to provide various services to illegal migrants. They offer anything money can buy including various forms of transportation, forged documents, money transfer services, and temporary housing. Travel is risky, and some smugglers offer money-back guarantees. If the migrant does not reach his destination safely, he gets his money back.

There are two main routes to Europe (Wall Street Journal 2016 March 30). One passes through Greece, with Athens and the port of Piraeus at its center. A second route begins in Sub-Saharan Africa and passes through Niger and Libya and reaches the EU from the Italian island of Lampedusa (Washington Post). If the Greek route is effectively blocked, there is speculation that migrants will switch to the Adriatic route from Albania to Puglia, Italy that was used in the 1990s. Modern communications, including smart phones, connect people separated by long distances along the multi-country routes. These networks are similar to the ones described by Hanson that connected villages in Mexico with employers in various cities in the United States. Various European politicians have blamed the smugglers for the mass migration, but if some smugglers are jailed, they will be replaced by other smugglers, as long as there is a demand by desperate migrants for the services of middlemen.


There are no easy and perfectly satisfactory solutions to the migration problem. Clear and consistent communication from EU officials about which migrants would be accepted would be a good starting point. The problem will not be eliminated by merely arresting smugglers. Allowing member states to make their own decisions about immigrants, rather than imposing quotas on members by EU officials, might reduce the risk of EU fragmentation. Indication of greater flexibility by the EU on migration could influence the outcome of the British exit (Brexit) referendum in June. Access to the single European market has been beneficial for all members, and disintegration of the EU because of disagreement over labor migration would be a costly error. However, the migration problem cannot be solved without addressing the push factors that create the supply of migrants. The problem is much broader than a side effect of wars in Syria and Iraq. Political instability, high birth rates, and lack of economic development in much of the EU neighborhood create a powerful push, particularly for young people, to get to the EU. To address the problem, an equally powerful mix combining economic, political, and possibly military tools will be needed. It is unlikely that the EU will pull this off entirely on its own.


Economist. 2016. “Afghan Refugees: Living in Limbo”. April 2.

Hanson, Gordon. 2006. “Illegal Migration from Mexico to the U.S.” Journal of Economic Literature, December.

Open Society. 2015. “Understanding Migration and Asylum in the European Union”. October.

Wall Street Journal. 2016d.”Escape for Migrants Starts at 1,000 Euros”. March 30.

Wall Street Journal 2016. “Border Checks Cast Pall in Village”. March 25.

Wall Street Journal. 2016. “Greece to Send Migrants Back to Turkey”. April 4.

Wall Street Journal. 2016. “EU Official Aims to Deter Migrants”. March 4.
Washington Post. 2015. “A Smugglers’ Haven in the Sahara”. July 20.

One Response to "The Human Highway to Europe: Roadblocks and Detours"

  1. cqpchd   April 28, 2016 at 6:01 am

    Well ! Thank you so much for this article. I have no idea people suffering from this.