Will more than 1 million refugees and migrants arrive in Europe by sea in 2016?

Here are a few general points to provide context: The BBC reports that “More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015.” Specially 1,294,000, 78% (just over 1 million) of whom arrive by sea, and 37% of whom seek asylum in Germany. The most common entry points are in the Mediterranean: Spain, Italy, and – especially – Greece [1]. Currently, Syrians make up about half of the migrants and refugees crossing into Europe, though about a quarter come from Afghanistan.

Importantly, only 283,532 migrants and refugees entered Europe in 2014[2]. So 2015 represents a roughly 450% increase in the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe. Over the long run, I expect the number of sea-borne migrants and refugees entering Europe (hereafter “M&Rs” – note that I’ll take the qualification “by sea” for granted and not repeat it in order to avoid some tedium) to return to previous historical levels. But the current situation in many way does not resemble the historical situation. Trying to estimate the number of men 18-30 who would die in Europe is usually best done by looking at earlier historical levels. But from 1939-1945, the previous historical levels would have been pretty useless. I think we’re in a situation more-or-less like that with regard to M&Rs in Europe.

There often seem to be two sides to the equation. One is a demand side; here, M&Rs seeking entry to Europe. The other is a supply side; the EU and individual European nation-states (including non-EU nation-states like Switzerland) who can grant entry to Europe.

The demand side of the equation looks to remain very high. To engage in a bit of reckless generalization, the situation in places like Syria and Afghanistan (which made up about 70% of M&Rs in 2015) does not appear to be getting any better. Similarly, places like Iraq and Iran continue to generate sizable numbers of M&Rs. None of these countries appear to have been emptied of potential M&Rs either. So on the demand side, last year is probably the best guide for this year. Since the number of M&Rs in 2015 was a bit over 1 million, I’d bet that there is a high probability (70% or so) that the number will be between 850,000 and 1,250,000 for 2016, with smallish tails (15% or so) on both sides. That translates to about a 52% chance that over 1 million M&Rs.

Obliviously, I’ll want to continue to update the demand numbers as more information becomes available. And the UNHCR reports that there have been 130,110 (call it 130,000) M&Rs so far (2/29) in 2016. That’s about 13% of 1,000,000 M&Rs, about 16% of the way through the year. So it looks as if we’re a bit off the pace of 2015. But in fact the number of R&Ms went up considerably in later months of 2015, peaking in October. If I’m reading the data right, there were only 5,550M&Rs in January 2015 and 7,271 M&Rs in February 2015[3]. So, if I’m reading the situation rightly (and I really wonder if I am since the result is so surprising), we’re an order of magnitude ahead of the pace set in 2015. Here’s the graphic (which is from the UNHCR):


Another way to put it is this: At the end of February, 2015 the total number of M&Rs was 1% of 1,000,000. At the end of February, 2016 the total number of M&Rs was 13% of 1,000,000. All of this suggests that the probability that demand side will be over a million is higher than 52%. I’d call it something closer to 75%, with that probability rising if the number of M&Rs remains so high in March.

But what about the supply side? The EU and individual European nation-states could limit the number of places for M&Rs. Austria[4], Hungary[5], and Slovenia[6] have done so, as have some other European nation-states. But these are largely barriers to entry (or migration internal to Europe) by land. These barriers will not (directly) prevent entry by sea. There has been some talk of the EU “ring-fencing” Greece[7], which would probably make an already difficult situation in that troubled country much worse. But Greece is still a part of the EU, so a landing there is still a landing in Europe, which is all that matters for the purposes of this question. Perhaps some think that ring-fencing Greece would force the Greek government to discourage M&Rs further. However, I doubt Greece has the resources necessary to do much more than they already are. (BTW, the human cost to the M&Rs of being subjected to – what to say? – a low cost effort to prevent landing in the EU would likely be horrendous[8].) In general, the EU has just not (yet) shown that it can change much on the supply side of the equation, though that might change.

So a 75% likelihood that there will be 1,000,000 or more M&Rs in 2016 looks right to me for now.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_migrant_crisis

[3] http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austrian_border_barrier

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_border_barrier

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slovenian_border_barrier

[7] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/c40504cc-c12b-11e5-9fdb-87b8d15baec2.html#axzz41an3ZbDM

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/22/could-australia-stop-the-boats-policy-solve-europe-migrant-crisis


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