Displacement and migration

Entrance to a tent in a refugee camp in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon

Entrance to a tent in a refugee camp in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, © Thomas Trutschel / photothek.net

31.10.2016 - Article

Larger migration movements in Africa, the war in Syria and the so‑called Islamic State terrorist organisation have lent a new dimension to global flows of refugees in recent years. There are currently over 65 million refugees worldwide - more than ever before.

As countries of first admission, states that border conflict zones bear a particularly large burden as regards coping with refugee flows. However, the European Union (EU) is also a destination for many people fleeing war and persecution in the world’s conflict zones. As a result of recent developments, it is facing major challenges. Germany, Italy, Austria and Sweden have taken in two-thirds of all refugees in the EU so far.

Europe’s response to the current refugee flows

Refugees rescued from a boat in distress on board a Spanish frigate
Refugees rescued from a boat in distress on board a Spanish frigate© picture alliance / dpa

After a boat carrying refugees capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015, the focus was initially put on combating criminal networks of people smugglers. In May 2015, the European Commission put forward proposals for a European migration agenda, followed by a first package of measures to deal with the refugee flows. The EU is helping Greece and Italy, the Mediterranean countries highly affected by the refugee crisis, as well as third countries such as Turkey, by providing admission programmes for refugees and other forms of support aimed at easing the burden of migration. In addition, the EU is actively working to combat people smuggling via the EUNAVFOR Med operation Sophia, which forms part of the the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

In the second half of 2015, the flow of refugees to Europe reached its highest level. Between July and August 2015, the number of refugees arriving in Greece via Turkey almost doubled. In October 2015 alone, over 200,000 people arrived in Greece, many of whom travelled onward to central and northern Europe. In response, the EU made decisions on returning refused asylum‑seekers, on monitoring the EU’s outer borders effectively and on setting up “hotspots” to register and resettle arriving refugees and migrants.

Camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey
Camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey© Thomas Trutschel / photothek.net

In February 2016, several countries along the western Balkan route closed their borders. In order to minimise the ensuing backlog of refugees in Greece and to prevent further fatalities in the Aegean Sea, the EU and Turkey agreed on a joint declaration in March 2016. Turkey agreed to take back from Greece refugees whose asylum application has been rejected in a legally binding way or who did not apply for asylum in Greece. For every Syrian returned to Turkey under this agreement, the EU Member States will take in a Syrian from Turkey who is entitled to protection. The EU and its Member States have pledged further financial support to Turkey to help with the over 2.7 million refugees in the country. The EU is initially providing a total of three billion euros for Syrian refugees in Turkey. This will enable Turkey to provide refugees with humane living conditions, thus deterring them from continuing their dangerous journey. Turkey is also stepping up its efforts to combat people smuggling.

Since March 2016, the numbers of refugees and migrants arriving in the EU via the Aegean Sea have declined sharply.

A detailed timeline is available on the website of the European Council:


A joint European immigration and asylum policy

The Common European Asylum System

The large influx of people seeking protection in the EU in 2015 and 2016 revealed many shortcomings in the Common European Asylum System. In response, the European Commission presented a comprehensive reform package in May and July 2016 with proposals on common and immediately binding regulations. The aim is to have a more efficient and coherent European asylum system. A further aim is to reduce incentives for people seeking protection to travel on from one EU Member State to another, that is, to reduce what is known as secondary movement. The European Commission’s proposal also lays down a fair distribution of refugees in Europe so that countries at the EU’s outer borders do not face a disproportionate burden. This reform package is currently being negotiated among the Member States.

Further information on the development of European asylum policy is available on the websites of the European Commission and the European Council:



Regular migration

The Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) gave the EU greater authority to harmonise immigration policy. A common immigration policy creates harmonised conditions EU‑wide for third-country nationals who reside legally in an EU Member State and makes it easier for workers to emigrate to Europe. This helps to combat the decline in population in Europe and creates incentives for qualified migrants. At the same time, this policy combats human trafficking and people smuggling by creating legal ways to migrate. Demographic developments and the shortage of skilled workers mean that Germany and the EU need qualified migrants.

In the field of legal migration, the EU lays down regulations on granting visas and residence permits, as well as the conditions for family reunification. The EU has also introduced a combined residence permit for highly qualified third country nationals in the form of the Blue Card directive, which makes it easier to post managers and makes access to the German labour market easier for highly skilled professionals. The EU has also introduced a special residence permit for seasonal workers.

Further information on legal migration in the EU is available on the website of the European Commission:


Cooperation with countries of origin and transit

A girl in the refugee camp in Zaatari, Jordan
A girl in the refugee camp in Zaatari, Jordan© photothek.net

It will only be possible to cope with the current refugee flows by working with the refugees’ countries of origin and transit.

To this end, a summit was held in Valletta, Malta, in November 2015 between the EU, the heads of government of the EU Member States and the heads of government of 34 African countries at which the participants agreed to work more closely together to resolve the migration crisis. The German Government is providing significant financial support to implement the Action Plan agreed at the summit via a new EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

The causes of displacement and irregular migration must be addressed as a matter of priority in the countries of origin and transit. Severe violations of human rights, poor governance, corruption, inequality, discrimination, impunity, the effects of climate change, hunger, high population growth rates and bad economic conditions in general are the structural causes that trigger or increase displacement and migration. These problems must be tackled in the countries of origin in order to give people at risk of displacement opportunities in their home country.

The EU aims to adopt a coherent approach in its work with countries of origin and transit. On 28 June 2016, the European Council took up the proposals made in a European Commission communication of 7 June 2016 and agreed on guidelines for EU migration compacts with countries of origin and transit as regards preventing irregular migration and working together to repatriate irregular migrants. These migration compacts will cover all relevant policy areas and instruments.

The EU and important countries of origin are already working closely together in the field of migration policy via mobility partnerships. The EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM) forms the political framework for the external dimension of the Union’s migration policy. It pursues four key aims: facilitating legal migration; preventing human trafficking and irregular migration; fostering international protection; and increasing development opportunities in the countries of origin. Germany is participating in mobility partnerships with Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova.

It is also taking part in the European migration dialogues with West and North African countries (the Rabat Process), the countries at the Horn of Africa (Khartoum Process), the partner countries in the Eastern Partnership, Central Asia and the Western Balkans, Russia and Turkey (Prague Process) and countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and South Asia (Budapest Process).

Further information on the EU’s migration dialogue is available here:


A credible asylum and refugee policy involves providing the necessary protection, but also repatriating people who are not granted permission to stay and managing irregular migration. An important component of EU migration and refugee policy thus involves applying the regulations on repatriation. People who are not legally entitled to stay are therefore obliged to return to their country of origin. Germany is helping the EU to improve cooperation on repatriation with the countries of origin and transit. The EU has also signed readmission agreements with third countries. These agreements oblige third countries to readmit people who have entered the EU illegally from their countries and whose asylum application, if they have submitted one, has been rejected.

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