Migration In The Greater Mediterranean Region

The NATO Southern Hub has conducted a research project to examine the present-day drivers and consequences of contemporary migration, as well as the potential challenges associated with future migratory flows.

Root, Causes and Consequences for International Governance and Human Security

While Mediterranean sea-crossings have decreased in recent years, mass flows of people towards European countries remain of strategic concern. In policymaking circles, managing these flows has often been framed as a zero-sum game between state security and humanity, between ‘stopping the boats’ versus ‘rescuing the migrants’. Migration, therefore – especially when undertaken through irregular and disorderly channels – has emerged as both a national security and a human security issue. To date, this phenomenon continues to generate real concerns and dilemmas for nation-states, while also exposing migrants themselves to insecurity, vulnerability and abuse.

Against this background, the NATO Southern Hub has conducted a research project to examine the present-day drivers and consequences of contemporary migration, as well as the potential challenges associated with future migratory flows. As part of this project, the Hub also held an online workshop with external experts from North Africa and the Middle East. The event enabled the Hub to take stock of local and regional perspectives, to validate and enrich its research findings, and to outline strategic options for policymaking authorities.

While recognizing that there are no easy or immediate solutions in the present global context, this particular project considers this salient topic in a forward-looking manner, highlighting the risks and opportunities that lie ahead.

More specifically, this study draws attention to the fact that irregular migration tends to undermine state security in largely unconventional ways, while the accompanying securitization process may create additional challenges across countries of origin, transit and destination.

Furthermore, this study emphasizes the need for policymakers to capitalise on the lessons learned so far and to increase resilience to other potential migratory “crises”. Among other recommendations, it urges policymakers to incorporate critical insights on the securitization of migration, to take into account the complex links between development and migration, and to balance short-term responses with long-term policy objectives on leveraging the benefits of regular migration.


Migration is an “age-old phenomenon” – changing one’s location has been an essential human characteristic since the beginning of time. Globalization has further intensified this trend, particularly the transformation of economic and trade processes, which have been enabling greater movement of labour, goods and human capital.

This paper is only concerned with international migrants and international migration. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines an international migrant as: any person who has changed his or her country of usual residence, distinguishing between “short-term migrants” (those who have changed their countries of usual residence for at least three months, but less than one year) and “long-term migrants” (those who have done so for at least one year).

The first IOM World Migration Report (WMR) was published in 2000. It showed that there were 150 million international migrants globally at that time. The 2020 report demonstrates an increase to 272 million. However, worldwide distribution is not even, with the Mediterranean region being one of the areas where the issue of migrants and asylum seekers is of great concern. Increasing pressure on countries bordering the Mediterranean and, as a consequence, stress on landlocked European countries has been present, though the numbers have reduced in comparison to the peak experienced during the European Migrant and Refugee crisis, in 2015.

Since last year, COVID-19 pandemic-related border closures across Africa (in 43 of Africa’s 54 countries) have disrupted the normal flows of regional migration and, coupled with the restrictions on entering Europe, have trapped many migrants in unsafe conditions and forced others to take more dangerous migration routes (e.g., the shift from the Central Mediterranean to the still more dangerous Western Mediterranean routes, including via the Spanish Canary Islands). Mediterranean sea-crossings dropped by 20% in 2020 (to 86,670 arrivals), but mass flows of people towards European countries remain of great concern, since many experts agree that, when the effects of the pandemic have passed, there will be a bounce-back effect leading to a large increase in migratory flows.

The present study is intended to contribute to a better understanding of the human and state security issues which is pivotal in the wider Mediterranean region. In terms of the analytical study process, it begins with an assessment of the root causes of international migration as a whole, and then moves on to investigate the implications for human security and the challenges for state security, with greater emphasis on irregular migration, although this is not intended to detract from the importance of regular migration.

Subsequently, the research study and this paper are focused on an analysis of the dilemma generated by the dichotomy of human security and state security associated with the phenomenon of migration. This stage of the analytical process was developed during an online Workshop which brought together regional subject matter experts in order to collect and benefit from their insights and opinions.

Root Causes

The root causes of international migration are often inter-related and identifying to what degree each factor has influenced the decision to migrate can often be very difficult. That said, the following are the widely accepted root causes:

Poverty and Uneven Wealth Distribution: These are undoubtedly among the main causes of international migration, caused by poor governance in social, political and economic affairs.

Social and economic inequality is present in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, where people experience frustration due to the scarcity or a complete lack of opportunities to improve their standard of living. The youth are particularly vulnerable and they often feel powerless, while their family difficulties are exacerbated by a combination of socioeconomic deprivation, widespread poverty, lack of job opportunities and poor governmental services for citizens.

Demographic Pressure: Demographic growth in these regions, in particular the youth bulge in Africa, is fuelling the flow of people looking for a better life. Africa is currently the fastest-growing region in the world and it is expected to surpass 2 billion people by 2050.

The pressure this growth is generating is likely to worsen the abovementioned real and perceived inequalities in the social, political and economic domains.

Environmental Vulnerability and Climate Change: Increased temperatures, floods, droughts, desertification and coastal erosion further damage the already fragile environment, impoverishing the regions and their inhabitants, affected by food and water insecurity.

Both growing population and climate change act as threat multipliers in the already precarious context of regions where the poorest and most vulnerable areas will be hardest hit. Nevertheless, the effects of these changes on international migration are difficult to predict. Some see millions of ‘climate refugees’ moving south-to-north, while others underline that affected communities may become ‘trapped populations’.
Conflicts, Persecution and Human Rights Violations: In Africa and the Middle East, many people leave their homes because of indiscriminate violence and/or fear of persecution.

Often related to poor governance, they can be fuelled by general instability, corruption and weak rule of law as well as the absence of trust in the political system. Thirteen African countries are currently involved in major internal armed conflicts and they account for almost 90% of the people displaced by conflict and persecution on the African continent.

The Middle East continues to host the largest number of refugees globally. Looking at the eastern part of the Mediterranean region, in 2018, for the fifth consecutive year, Turkey was the largest host country in the world, with 3.7 million refugees, mainly Syrians (over 3.6 million). Reflecting the significant share of Syrians in the global refugee population, two other bordering countries, Jordan and Lebanon, are in the list of the top 10 host countries.

Natural Disasters: The worldwide number of natural disasters has almost doubled and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) the average number has almost tripled since the 1980s. Approximately 40 million people were affected by over 350 natural disasters between 1981 and 2010, according to the EM-DAT database. The most frequent disasters in the MENA region are floods, earthquakes, storms and droughts.

Opportunities to enhance strategic approaches to migration management

As previously outlined, much has changed since 2015, when irregular migratory flows to Europe spiked and crisis-response mechanisms were put into place. Now is the time to capitalise on lessons learned, to assess which policy interventions work best and to look over the horizon with a view to increasing resilience to other potential ‘crises’. The securitization of migration has focused the attention of policymakers, mobilised resources and produced important data and lessons that can be used to inform the design and management of future interventions. In a discussion about opportunities to enhance strategic approaches to managing migration, several lessons and policy recommendations stand out:

  • Revisit commonly held assumptions on why people migrate: Some of the interventions intended to stem irregular migration to Europe focus on creating greater employment opportunities and improving rural livelihoods in African countries of origin. These interventions target vulnerable communities in remote areas and displaced populations, especially the women and youth among these groups. However, the majority of those who migrate through irregular channels are young men, urban-based and better educated, who can fund the costly journey to Europe. This is often not just an individual decision, but rather a household strategy to increase income over the long-term through remittances. Analysis of the purchasing power of remittances measured against the migrants’ earnings suggest that it could take as long as 40 years to attain a similar level of financial empowerment at home. The World Bank’s Africa Migration Project has also confirmed the crucial role of remittances in promoting food security, health and education at the household level in sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, many of those who attempt irregular migration to Europe are endeavouring to make a transformative, generational leap in social mobility. And, in a departure from conventional wisdom, recent surveys show that greater awareness of the risks would not hold them back.
  • Incorporate critical insights on the securitization of migration: A growing body of work points to some of the potential adverse consequences associated with the securitization of migration. There is a need to measure, document and mitigate more systematically such unintended effects, especially when they might affect the resilience of communities and state structures, the relationship between the governing and the governed, or the social cohesion between migrant and local communities.

As policymaking affects the lives, livelihoods and rights of migrant and local communities alike, the importance of engaging in evidence-based dialogue on migration cannot be overemphasized. This includes periodically re-evaluating the markers for success in relation to contentious policy issues, such as the disengagement from search and rescue in the Mediterranean, the role of civil society in migration management, the disembarkation of migrants in areas where lives and freedoms may be threatened, and the factors that hinder the establishment of coordinated international efforts to save lives at sea. This evidence-based dialogue should also include realistic analysis of labour market needs in countries of destination, including the extent to which underground labour markets may act as a pull factor for irregular migration.

  • Explore new ways of altering the socio-economic factors driving migration: Efforts undertaken over the past few years illustrate the difficulty of addressing some of the most intractable societal challenges in countries of origin. There is little evidence to date that interventions aimed at increasing vocational skills in African countries of origin have translated into gainful employment in the local markets for the targeted beneficiaries. Therefore, the expected impact of such interventions on migration to Europe remains modest. Going forward, anchoring such efforts in national labour market strategies and ensuring coordination among a broader set of stakeholders (e.g. the private sector, national chambers of commerce, sub-national development agencies etc.) could help generate more employment opportunities. However, it is worth noting that even if such programmatic and policy responses become more effective with time, it is likely that the overall development gains on the African continent will be far more consequential in the long term, sustaining and potentially intensifying intra-regional mobility and international migration to Europe.
  • Support efforts to address the governance deficit: Beyond the issue of economic opportunities, there are other prevailing realities in countries of origin that swell theranks of the disenfranchised who seek to migrate, especially among the youth. Many are confronted with what looks like a lifetime of broken promises and unfulfilled aspirations amid continued political oppression, social exclusion, mismanagement of public affairs and lack of basic services. According to the 2020 Arab Youth Survey, more than half of the young men and women in the Middle East show dismay at the level of government corruption and poor leadership, and are therefore considering emigration. While it is the responsibility of leaders in Africa and the Middle East to steer structural change in countries of origin, international partners can support such endeavours by channelling resources in ways that incentivize inclusive social and political arrangements.
  • Assess the sustainability of current policy approaches: To date, activities aimed at improving migration management and promoting law enforcement cooperation have strengthened the apparatus of the state in countries of origin and transit.

However, tighter border controls in these areas have not stopped criminal networks from engaging in human smuggling. Smuggling prices have skyrocketed, while migrants have become increasingly dependent on their smugglers for passage to Europe. In addition to the perpetuation of this exploitative system, tighter border controls have been associated with other pernicious effects: an increase in the prices and bribes paid to local authorities, the concentration of the smuggling business in the hands of criminal networks with cross-border reach, as well as incentivising such criminal networks to diversify and scale-up their capabilities. Therefore, in the long run, the impact of the current policy approaches on the fight against human smuggling and trafficking remains unclear. What is clearer though is that the lack of alternative legal channels and the hardening of borders has translated into a rising demand for smuggling services, which risks boosting criminal networks and increasing corruption levels.

Furthermore, it is worth keeping in mind that efforts to improve migration management are being undertaken in countries of origin and transit which often have weak institutional and fiscal capacities. Modest political will may also be a factor in these contexts, where migration is not customarily perceived as a priority concern. Collectively, these dynamics raise questions about the long-term sustainability of efforts geared towards improving migration management, especially in the absence of external resources.

  • Balance short-term responses to the impacts of irregular migration with long-termpolicy objectives on leveraging the benefits of regular migration: As the previous chapters have outlined, it is irregular, unsafe and unregulated migration that poses the greatest challenges to state security and human security. Responding effectively to large scale movements of people does not only entail addressing the present-day drivers and consequences of irregular migration, but also anticipating and preparing for future challenges. Ageing populations, geopolitical instability and conflict, rising inequality and environmental changes will continue to set off migratory flows well into the future. The combined impact of these drivers will largely depend on how countries of origin, transit and destination cooperate on preventive measures, legal pathways, and support for reception, processing, integration and returns.


Forward-looking policies must be attuned to global realities and future scenarios, including those designed to envisage an increasing number of people migrating in the years and decades to come. To avoid or minimize destabilizing consequences in the future, policymakers from European and partner countries should seize opportunities to advance towards a comprehensive, long-term strategy on migration. Most notably, this means expanding the legal pathways for migration through bilateral, regional and multilateral arrangements. This includes regional mobility within Africa and the Middle East, but also towards Europe. Access to regular channels would discourage people from attempting irregular and dangerous paths of entry and residence, leading to fewer deaths and abuse at the hands of smugglers. With fewer people being pushed into irregular stay and entry, European states would also be confronted with fewer risks related to unregulated migratory pressure.

Many states recognize that cooperation on international migration is in their shared interest, in order to reap the benefits associated with this phenomenon as well as to manage the negative effects. The challenge that lies ahead is to leverage interdependence between the political, social and economic interests of the various national and sub-national constituencies, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Although it is important to remember that refugees and migrants have been amongst the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 outbreak, perhaps the pandemic has also presented us with an opportunity. Migration – including irregular migration – has temporarily reduced, while the media and public priorities are focused on health. In the context of what might be a cautious resurgence of multilateralism and solidarity, more forward-looking policies on migration may also have a chance.

Last but not least, it is worth re-emphasizing that the majority of migration is regular, not irregular, and regular migration on the whole promotes human security and benefits, or at least does not undermine, state security. Also, context matters: while the movement of a large number of migrants across a border in a short time period may stress national systems, managed migration need not. National responses to migration should be proportional to its potential challenges.

The full report is available via the NATO Southern Hub – www.thesouthernhub.org.

The NATO Southern HUB was established at Allied Joint Force Command Naples in order to improve NATO awareness and understanding of common global challenges in the area of interest and to identify opportunities for cooperation with selected Partners, while contributing to the overall coordination of NATO activities and efforts.