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

There’s strong evidence that the EU’s (ham-fisted and ill-considered) attempts to reduce the inflow of migrants and refugees is working. During the period of April 1-15, less than 8,000 migrants and refugees have arrived on Europe’s shores. That’s about half of what we saw last year during this same period[1]. As @Anneinak, @dkc, and @Milosz (as well as others) have pointed out, migrants and refugees are already seeking out other routes – especially Libya-Italy – in place of Turkey-Greece. But it is in no way clear that these alternative routes will support that average of 100,000 migrants and refugees/month for the rest of the year that would be necessary to reach 1,000,000 sea-borne arrivals that is the subject of this question. At the moment, the “human smuggling infrastructure” (I’m sorry, but I can’t recall from whom I’ve borrowed that phrase) does not appear to be in place to move so many people. That might change in the long-run, but I have some doubts about it doing so before 2016 ends. All that said, caution is warranted. Most of the inflow of migrants and refugees to Europe occurs during the last 4 months of the year. So there’s a very real possibility of reaching a million, but right now I don’t think that possibility can be much more than 2-to-1 against.

Let me add a little perspective. Almost four months into 2016, less than 25,000 migrants and refugees have arrived on Italian shores (mostly Sicilian shores, to be precise). So (assuming that seaborne arrivals via the Turkey-Greece route fall to about 10% of 2015 numbers), you’d have to see about a twenty-fold increase of migrants and refugees coming from North Africa to get close to 1,000,000 total. I doubt that that kind of increase is likely during the next 8 months.

Why? Well, here’s the a priori case: Smuggling isn’t easy. Generally, it’s a reprehensible line of work, but clandestinely getting people across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Sicily, landing these folks on the coast, and then skedaddling it back home to do it all again involves a lot of skill. It’s not as if fishmongers and waiters are going to enter the smuggling market. Nor is it likely that smugglers could hire qualified people to do this work on short notice.

To repeat, that’s just the a priori case. Maybe there are facts on the ground that make this easier than I’m imagining. Tell me if I’m wrong! Along these lines, in an intriguing comment, @Milosz suggests that ISIS in Libya might get into the smuggling game. Quite right, but I suspect it would take them some time to ramp up production (as it were), and that means ISIS (or a similar jihadist group) would be unlikely to have a decisive affect on whether we’ll see 1,000,000 seaborne arrivals this year.

Four brief points: First, Syria is much closer to Turkey than it is to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia (which are the major points of embarkation to Italy). Trust me on this, even though I’m an American; I looked this up on a map and everything. Anyway, getting from Syria to Tunisia will take a lot of time, and that means (once again) less relevance for the number of seaborne refugees and migrants in 2016.

Second, if I’m reading the data right, at least 96% of the seaborne refugees and migrants who’ve arrived in Italy this year were themselves African. Nigerians, for instance, have been the most numerous. There just doesn’t seem to be a history of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans making their way across north Africa in order to make it to Europe, and that means (I think) a lot of informal barriers to travel. (Think of the time you went on vacation where people weren’t used to folks from your country – it’s much harder and slower to get around.)

Third, though arrivals in Italy were 4 times higher in March 2016 than in March 2015, the pace has slowed a lot since then. There were more than 16,000 arrivals in Italy during March 2015, but there have been less than 6,000 halfway through April 2016. So perhaps we’re not seeing the uptick that I expected when I thought about a few weeks ago.

Fourth, while the overall flow of seaborne refugees and migrants peaked during November of 2015, the peak of the north Africa-Italy route was already falling fast in September of 2015. Let’s assume (as seems reasonable) that these ebbs and flows are a result of seasonal weather conditions. If so, we’re likely to have a pretty good guess about how many seaborne refugees and migrants will arrive in Europe via this route long before the end of the year[2].

[1] http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php
[2] http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/country.php?id=105

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