Human Rights Index #43: European Union Migration

TIR staff

The Human Rights Index is prepared three times a year by the University of Iowa Center for Human RightsThe Iowa Review is proud to feature the Index on our website, to suggest the global political and socioeconomic context within which we read and write.

Human Rights Index #43

Prepared by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR)*

June 20, 2015 marked World Refugee Day.  On that day, the European Union perhaps most prominently was reeling from a massive influx of frightened, desperate, and undocumented human beings—largely from Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and many via hazardous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea—seeking refuge from persecution, terrorism, war, rank poverty, and climate change.  At this writing, the EU supplements an estimated 10–15 percent of the world’s already existing 214 million undocumented international migrants.  This surge, in turn, has given rise to severe human rights harms among the migrants, including many deaths attributable to failed Mediterranean Sea crossings and to gross abuses inflicted upon those who have sought to flee from harm’s way in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.  Additionally, across the Sahara and sub-Sahara, arguably most notably in Libya, the ongoing instability has paved the way for a lucrative trans-Mediterranean human trafficking industry. What is more, those migrants who successfully reach Europe face significant problems such as excessive detention without criminal charge, squalid living conditions, and social and economic immobility upon release.  

In recent years, the security of the EU’s external borders, which are supposed to be monitored and funded collectively, has been shouldered mainly by the governments of the most affected EU states. In 2015, Italy—the most popular destination for immigrants crossing the Mediterranean—ended a relatively effective maritime patrol program (Mare Nostrum) after the EU refused to fund it, and a less effective multinational program (Triton) was implemented in its place. The results have been devastating.  While many EU member states actively supported the NATO intervention in Libya, few have recognized their collective responsibility to protect the innocent lives their mission helped to uproot in a conflict that is yet ongoing.  Amnesty International summarizes the human rights law on international migration: “Everyone, including all migrants and asylum-seekers, has the right to liberty and freedom of movement. In principle, migrants and asylum-seekers should not be detained for migration control purposes. Seeking asylum or being in an irregular situation is not a crime. Liberty is the rule. Detention must always be a last resort.”

1 — Europe’s rank in terms of danger for undocumented migration, due in no small measure to the precarity of crossing the Mediterranean Sea in inadequate vessels—the world’s most dangerous border crossing (International Organization for Migration 2014)

2 — Number of cases lost by Malta in the European Court of Human Rights in 2013 regarding Malta’s mandatory detention of migrants—the Court having found that both the treatment of the migrants in the detention centers and the speed of the Maltese asylum review procedure violated the European Convention on Human Rights (Asylum Information Database 2013)

18 — Number of months a migrant can be held in detention under EU law without ever having committed a crime (Amnesty International 2015)

32 — Percent of non-EU nationals (ages 20–64) living at risk of poverty in the EU as of 2013 compared to 15 percent of EU nationals of the same age group that year (OHCHR Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants 2013)

50 — Percent of individuals convicted of human trafficking in the EU identified as having EU citizenship, most of them from Bulgaria, Germany, Romania, and France (OHCHR Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants 2013)        

60 — Percent of EU citizens who disapproved their government’s approach to immigration in 2014 (Transatlantic Trends: The German Marshall Fund 2014)

310 — Number of refugees being held in tents in Austria—one of the wealthiest of EU countries—as of the end of May 2015 (Deutsche Welle 2015)

800 — Number of migrants killed when, in April 2015, a single boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea (NY Times 2015)

1,727 — Number of migrants who lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from January through April 17 of 2015—in contrast to 254 individuals who died during the same period attempting to migrate over land and sea across the rest of the world combined, a pace exceeding the total number of such deaths (3,279) in all of 2014 (Council on Foreign Relations 2015)

12,549 — Number of migrants seeking to enter Spain illegally in 2014, almost 70 percent more than in the previous year (Council on Foreign Relations 2014)    

15,000 — Number of migrants who tried to enter the EU between 1988 and 2013, the majority via the Mediterranean Sea (OHCHR Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants 2013)

36,390 — Number of migrants who arrived in the EU in the first four months of 2015 (BBC 2015)

219,000 — Number of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2014, compared to about 60,000 in 2013 (BBC 2014)

626,000 — Number of individuals who applied for asylum in the EU in 2014, about 45 percent of whom were actually granted asylum on their first effort—the greatest number of applications since the fall of the Soviet Union and a 44 percent increase from 2013 (BBC 2013)

1,900,000–3,800,000 — Total estimated number of undocumented immigrants living in the EU (Amnesty International 2015)

20,400,000 — Total number of non-EU nationals residing in one of the 27 EU member states as of January 1, 2013 (Eurostat 2013)

*Copyright © 2015 by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR). Prepared by Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus and UICHR Senior Scholar Burns H. Weston with the generous assistance of Zachary Nichols along with Zachary Heffernen, Alice Pan, Deanna Steinbach, and Haoyuan Song, all students at the UI College of Law. For additional facts concerning international migration and further information on human rights generally, please visit the UICHR web site: