The Challenge of Migratory Waves in the Eastern Mediterranean: Shaping a Response



The Arab Spring and its aftermath have provoked significant regional unrest from which emerged political regime changes in many countries of North Africa and the Middle East. In Syria and Libya, notably, unrest has led to devastating civil wars forcing a large part of their population to attempt to reach European grounds seeking refuge and better living conditions.

The European Union (EU) faces security and humanitarian challenges of unprecedented proportions due to the huge migratory wave across the central and eastern Mediterranean.

As Malta’s Prime Minister stated in April, “What is happening now is of epic proportions. If Europe, if the global community continues to turn a blind eye… we will all be judged in the same way that history has judged Europe when it turned a blind eye to the genocide of this century and last century.”

By Maria Kottari

Amid ongoing migrant arrivals, and considerations by the EU of more direct action, this article outlines the conditions of trafficking across the Mediterranean Sea and the attendant security and humanitarian implications for the EU.

The article focuses on the case of illegal migration towards Greek shores and the internal policy challenges the country faces given its ongoing economic crisis.

An assessment of FRONTEX’s maritime operations in the eastern Mediterranean is made, along with an analysis of Turkey’s role and the EU’s strategy in the areas of maritime and migration policy.


The commemoration of the tragic shipwreck of the Titanic some 103 years earlier took place on 16 April 2015.

A comparison made by Amnesty International shows that in 2014 migrant drownings in the Mediterranean made up more than the equivalent of two Titanics in terms of numbers of victims.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) some 3,400- 3,500 migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers bound for European shores lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean in 2014. This number is expected to rise in 2015. On 18 April 2015, 800 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast and a similar event took place in the beginning of the same month with 400 victims.

According to the Greek authorities, during the weekend of 18 and 19 April the Greek coastguard rescued 1,047 migrants at risk. Amnesty International reports that the escalating conflicts in Africa and the Middle East have “led to the largest refugee disaster since the Second World War.”

Amnesty estimates that 57 million people have been forced to flee worldwide in the last year, 6 million more than in 2012.

As shown in Figure 1 (below), for the last two years illegal border crossings via seaways have surpassed illegal land border crossings.

MIgratory Flows

Migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers from North Africa and the Middle East, mainly from Libya, Syria and Somalia, are crossing the Mediterranean in droves, aided by human traffickers, seeking better living conditions in EU territory.

Smugglers take full advantage of migrants’ desperation, trying to squeeze their last cent from them.

Migrants undergo cruel and inhuman treatment while crossing the Mediterranean, with poorly equipped and overladen vessels. Life jackets, adequate food and fresh water are seldom provided aboard; instead, a communication device to alert passing commercial or state vessels (or patrol aircraft) in the area is usually offered.

Under the current EU regulatory framework, the initial host country of irregular migrants is responsible for their processing and documentation, including feeding, clothing, housing and provision of medical treatment.

Ideally, those granted asylum or refugee status would be divided up among EU countries. The rest would be turned away. Recent events have shown that this is little more than theory.

The increased flow of illegal immigrants poses serious problems in Greece’s relations with its European partners, as Greece is not the final destination of migrants.

In contrast, the majority attempt to move onwards either to Italy or through the western Balkan countries to Western Europe or Scandinavia. However, as was decided by the EU’s Dublin II Regulation adopted during the Greek EU Presidency in 2003, illegal immigrants, when identified, should be returned to their first country of entry into European territory (Council of the European Union, 2003)

The central and eastern Mediterranean routes have scored the highest numbers of illegal border crossings and consequently the highest death toll to date. The central Mediterranean route refers to the migratory flow coming from North Africa towards Italy and Malta through the Mediterranean Sea.

Here, Libya often acts as nexus point where migrants from the Horn of Africa and West African routes meet before embarking on their journey towards the EU. The eastern Mediterranean route is defined for FRONTEX purposes as the passage used by migrants crossing through Turkey to the EU via Greece, southern Bulgaria or Cyprus.

Since 2008, this route has become the second biggest migratory hot spot, with the European Union external border with Turkey being the main nexus point on this route.

Italy, Malta and Greece have currently the most difficult and pressing cases to face and they have been hard pushed to cope. Illegal border crossing by sea generates internal policy issues in the countries concerned.

In addition, it represents the most significant and complex maritime security issue related to the Mediterranean Sea at present.

Illegal migration towards Greek shores

During the past three years, Greece has experienced a rise of illegal sea border crossings compared to 2010-2011.

More precisely, according to FRONTEX, 2010 saw a sudden increase in detections of illegal border crossing on the small 12.5 km-long stretch of land not delineated by the River Evros, which marks the land border between Greece and Turkey. Greece requested FRONTEX’s assistance, and it deployed the first Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT) in November 2010.

However, in 2011, the number of illegal border crossings along the Turkish land border skyrocketed again.

The Euro-Med region is becoming a single region from the standpoint of terrorist operations.
The Euro-Med region is becoming a single region with the dynamics of change in the Eastern Med and North Africa. 

Greek authorities have taken a series of measures to control illegal border crossings, including:

a) Operation Aspida, with the deployment of additional Hellenic police officers and equipment to the Evros region;

b) Greek Operation Xenios Zeus focused on inland detections of illegal stays and their return;

c) construction of a fence along a 12.5 km area of the north-eastern town of Orestiada;

d) an extension of the maximum length of detention period for migrants;

e) an increase in the capacity of detention centres for identification and return;

f) the reduction of the time period from 30 to seven days during which irregular migrants can leave Greece if they are not in detention centres.

The European Commission has raised its opposition to the construction of the fence while Greek authorities claim it is a cost-effective way of policing this part of the border both for Greek and other EU countries facing migratory issues.

Greece has identified irregular migration flows as a security threat against its national identity and domestic politics.

In 2013, a shift to sea border crossings with migrants arriving to the Greek islands from Turkey was observed.

According to the Greek coastguard, the number of illegal migrants arriving in Greece by sea has tripled in the first three months of 2015.

Around 54% of irregular migrants come from Syria, 26% from Afghanistan, and the rest from Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria.

According to the latest report released by the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, almost half of the citizens of Syria, a country with a population of about 22 million, have been forced to flee abandon their homeland as a result of the civil war that has now been raging for four years.

Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe are initially directed to Turkish territory and then to the Greek islands of the Dodecanese and the north Aegean Sea. Refugees are transported by smugglers in inflatable boats, fishing boats and, during summer season, in sailboats, in order to mislead the Greek coastguard.

The task of the Greek coastguard becomes more complicated in the vicinity of the Turkish Mediterranean shore, the main embarkation point for the smugglers’ boats to the Greek islands.

In many cases, transportation takes only ten minutes; thus the Greek coastguard’s response time is very limited.

The island with the biggest influx to date is Mytilene, followed by Chios, Leros and Samos. Other islands have also seen arrivals.

People-smugglers do not hesitate to destroy the boats, or to abandon them in the middle of the route, to avoid being arrested by the Greek coastguard. Illegal sea border crossing from the Turkish Mediterranean coast towards the Greek islands is widespread and smugglers operate on a trading basis; they have also mobilised social media in order to post their announcements of illegal transportation towards Greek territory.

Serious concerns have been raised by locals in the Greek islands about the effects of human trafficking on regional tourism etc. Turkey, in turn, is said to take advantage of the situation in order to boost its own tourist industry in the Turkish Mediterranean shores.

The massive migratory flows towards Greece during the last three years have produced a complex internal policy issue for the country, especially regarding living conditions in the detention centres.

Given the country’s economic crisis, migratory flow management and sea-border control have been the subjects of heated debate preoccupying the internal political agenda.

In November 2014, Syrian refugees gathered for almost a month in Athens city centre, at Syntagma Square, requesting the government’s mobilisation in order to provide them asylum and shelter. There were serious allegations that smugglers had sought to create a climate of tension and confusion between the Syrian refugees and the government over the asylum procedure and were trying to get vast amounts of money on the pretext that they could help asylum-seekers to move to other European countries.

FRONTEX and maritime migration flow challenges in Greece

FRONTEX was established in 2004 as the EU agency tasked to manage co-operation between countries to secure national borders.

Due to its extensive external borders and the intense migratory pressures Greece hosts an important part of FRONTEX’s operational activities.

Operation ‘Poseidon’, covering the Greek-Turkish and the Bulgarian-Turkish land border and the eastern Mediterranean region, is the largest FRONTEX has ever co-ordinated.

Operation Poseidon has been running since 2006, with an interruption during 2010 when the Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT) operation took place in the area of River Evros.

Due to the development of Operation Poseidon, up until 2011 Greece witnessed a decrease of 98% on illegal sea-border migration flows. As a result, this operation is seen as quite effective as it has forced the organised trafficking networks of migrants to change route and switch to the land border, particularly in the Evros region.

As already mentioned, the Syrian civil war has led to an increase of migratory flows to the Greek islands through the maritime borders. Therefore, it is evident that serious geopolitical developments have a significant impact on the migration flows.

This has led to a change of circumstances, which, at least initially, FRONTEX has been unable to manage.

FRONTEX’s presence in Greece has been reinforced with the inauguration of a pilot FRONTEX Operational Office (FOO) in Piraeus since October 2010. FRONTEX’s then director, Jean Louis de Brouwer, stated: “Greece is the member state confronted with the biggest challenge. This is not a Greek problem, it is an EU issue,” going on to emphasise that solidarity, as a fundamental principle of the EU, was embodied by FRONTEX.

“This operational office is the first of its kind,” he said. “It cannot fail.

It simply cannot fail. […] FOO is an absolutely essential element of FRONTEX’s development. Failure of this centre is not an option.” However, the increase of migratory flows to Greece through sea borders over the last three years raises doubts about the success of this regional operation office.

A higher amount of FRONTEX funds destined for the management of irregular migration goes to Spain and Italy compared to Greece. What is more, the financial contributions of the other member states are minimal, reaching only a fifth of the amount contributed by Greece to tackle the issue of irregular migration.

Greek and  Turkey Migrant Flows

Many EU member states have refused to participate in joint operations under the responsibility of FRONTEX.

Greece claims that there is a significant solidarity deficit among EU member states and a weakness in common decision-making as well as a correct assessment of the pressing emergency of the incidents.

A striking example of this deficit is the amount of financial resources available for joint operations deployed in the Mediterranean per month. Operation Triton in the central Mediterranean reached 4 million euros per month as compared to Operation Poseidon in the eastern Mediterranean, which reached only 600,000 euros, even though migration is 35% higher in the eastern Mediterranean than in the central Mediterranean.

On the other hand, Greece has been attributed a higher amount of funds over the period since 2010; however the Greek authorities did not absorb the totality of the available funds.

One could argue that despite FRONTEX’s deficiencies, and even though the political will exists, there is a great incompetence on the part of the Greek state apparatus, both in central decision-making and in implementation at local level.


The current situation with the trafficking of irregular migrants and refugees along Mediterranean shores has taken on tragic dimensions.

Smugglers have developed new ways of trafficking, such as by cargo ship, which could hinder further the operations of the local coastguard and FRONTEX.

The challenges of irregular maritime migration require an evolving and active EU engagement in the Mediterranean.

Irregular maritime migration and smuggling by immigrants during their transit to Europe is a multifaceted phenomenon involving overlapping national jurisdictions and security concerns with implications for the EU as a whole, not only for the most affected member states.

Republished with the permission of Strategic Insights.

This article appears in the June 2015 issue of Strategic Insights.

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