Blog post written by Professor Etienne Piguet (University of Neuchâtel), Vice President of CFM/EKM (Federal Commission on Migration FCM).


This very tentative and exploratory paper launches a set of hypothesis to better understand, and possibly theorise, the ‘migration crisis’ in Europe. I would like to go beyond three popular and mutually exclusive explanations that I consider insufficient and simplistic. One that considers most people attempting to reach Europe as economic migrants, one that considers that there is no migration crisis except the one self-produced by Europe’s closure, and one that considers the recent events as a very specific accident in history linked mostly to the civil war in Syria.


Why the word ‘crisis’?


I use the term here to design the fact that, in recent years, an unprecedented number of people risked their lives to reach Europe. I use the term unprecedented on purpose. We know that at the beginning of the 1990s the number of asylum requests lodged in Europe was of a similar magnitude, but I contend that the circumstances were different. A large number of those asylum seekers were Eastern Europeans fleeing – without risking their lives – the uncertainties of the fall of the iron-curtain. A large number of them – and this also holds true for the victims of the civil wars in ex-Yugoslavia – had to go back soon after their arrival in Europe. What was new in 2015 is that refugees moved spontaneously, in large numbers, and over large distances (from the South to the North), and that these movements led to a major crisis of European politics – even if we should keep in mind that the vast majority of refugees are still hosted by Southern countries. But most of all, the term ‘crisis’ is justified, because people are dying every day on the shores of Europe without an adequate policy response.

So there is a crisis and I want to understand its fundamentals. I contend that they lie in longue-durée evolutions and in the transformation of territory, rights and space. Hence the theoretical inspiration I seek lies in Fernand Braudel’s ‘Geohistory’ and, among others, in the work of French geographer Christian Grataloup on globalisation. ‘Geohistory’ contends that, to understand the contemporary world, events have to be situated geographically and in relation to other ‘social places’ (lieux sociaux) and symmetrically that a place is understandable only within a scenario that articulates it with other events and places (Grataloup 2015b: 218).

But let’s go back to the interpretation of the crisis. A first explanation is obvious, but needs to be put to the forefront, as it probably is the most important in terms of weight: this is violence, or more generally, existential threats on the lives of people worldwide. Alexander Betts has coined the very important concept of ‘survival migration’ in that context (Betts 2013). This allows us – and it is important – to brush aside the popular idea of a crisis mainly driven by the mix of a minority of ‘true’ refugees with a majority of ‘economic migrants’ not in need of protection. But what Sassen calls “a desperate search for bare life on the part of a rapidly growing number of men, women and children” (Sassen 2016: 218) does not suffice to explain why hundreds of thousands of people risk their lives to reach Europe.

Violence is Not New


In 1967, just as the protocol enlarging the 1951 Refugee Convention to the non-European world was signed, two million people were displaced by war and famine in Biafra (Nigeria). Extremely few tried to reach Europe. Recent history is sadly full of similar examples of tragic but mostly local displacements. Even as the number of refugees reached a historic high in the early 1990s – due to wars in Africa, Iraq, and elsewhere (Butler 2017) – relatively few attempted long distance displacements. This of course still holds true today with the largest share of refugees being a whole lot higher in poorer countries. But a growing, if still minor, proportion tries to move further. Thus, in addition to violence in area of departure, we need other explanations to the changing patterns of refugees’ migration. Mine revolve around 4 concepts: connectivity, distanciation, territory and solidarity. Major changes have recently occurred in these four domains within a broader context of globalisation and social change (Castles 2003).



Let’s start with connectivity. It sounds banal but areas affected by violence are much more connected with possible asylum destinations than 50 years ago. Physical distance – geography in the traditional sense – still affects refugees much more than other migrants. The former are especially destitute of resources to travel. But distances have shrunk for all and this came as a surprise for refugee regimes. Gil Loescher noted about the time of the 1967 protocol: “Western governments never envisaged large-scale population movements from the Third World. The developed world was simply too distant” (Loescher 2001: 229).

Four mechanisms have contributed to flatten the world of refugees

  • The first is information: according to a study in Zaatari camp (Jordan), about 86% of the young Syrians owned a mobile phone in 2015 and 50% of them went online daily. During the same period, an app was made available to follow the situation at the check-points at the Serbian border for those attempting to enter the EU (“Asylum in Serbia” available on Google Playstore).
  • The second is the fact that – despite increasing inequalities in the world – the number of people who are able to collect or borrow a few thousand dollars to escape is rising. Growing diasporas are also important contributors. Those who are fleeing are often in desperate situations; but they have more resources than in Biafra in the 1960’s.
  • A third trigger is the reduction of exit controls by governments, contrary to what was common at the time of the Cold War. Far from being ashamed of defectors, some countries, such as Eritrea, now simply raise a tax on expatriates.
  • Finally, professional smugglers networks, sometime criminal but most often not (Landry 2016), are also taking advantage and reinforcing the connectivity of the forced migration landscape.

Obviously, Western governments are frantically trying to fight against these trends. They are building fences and militarising borders. They are trying to deter and contain. But containment itself is in crisis, and that is my second line of explanation around the concept of distanciation.



One reason why, in the past, most refugees stayed close to their region of origin was that they were prevented to leave by a pact between the North and the South. I quote Jeff Crisp: “An implicit deal was struck whereby [Southern] states admitted refugees to their territory and provided land on which they could live and farm, while Western donor states provided the funding – much of it channeled through UNHCR – that was required to feed, shelter, educate and provide health care to these exiled populations” (Crisp 2003: 5). This deal also implied the resettlement of a certain proportion of refugees. Although the will to contain is still there and although the large majority of refugees are indeed still contained, two central components of the pact were altered during the last decades: first, resettlement diminished or at least failed to cope with the increase in absolute numbers of refugees; second, donors failed to meet their financial obligations to assist refugees on site.

Let me quote Antonio Guterres in 2015 regarding UNHCR operations near the Syrian border: “We are so dangerously low on funding that we risk not being able to meet even the most basic survival needs of millions of people over the coming six months”. What happened during the next six months was indeed terrible suffering for Syrian refugees but also… the migration crisis in Europe. Unable to survive in camps refugees attempted to reach Europe who quickly attempted to recreate distanciation and containment by setting up a much worse deal… the deal with Turkey. This leads to my last line of explanation revolving around the concepts of territory and solidarity.

Territory and Solidarity


As noted long ago by Zolberg and others, the attitude of receiving states is central to understanding the displacements of refugees. I contend that this attitude – the solidarity with the suffering of the refugees – is more than ever territorially asymmetric: “Asylum (…) is available only to those who manage to enter the territory of the state of refuge” (Price 2009). In recent times instruments intended to lessen this asymmetry have been rolled back: I already mentioned resettlement, but in addition, most countries of destination abolished the possibility to file an asylum application at their embassies and visa policies were concurrently tightened.

But simultaneously, I contend that, while solidarity abroad diminished, de facto solidarity within many asylum countries increased despite the growing anti-refugee rhetoric in public discourse. In the last decades, we have witnessed a process of humanitarianisation, judicialisation and depolitisation of asylum analysed, among others, by Gibney, Price and Thielmann: In many developed countries, material reception conditions have been improved, the definition of what constitutes protection needs has been widened, procedural safeguards in the refugee determination process and against the removal of those not qualifying for refugee protection have been strengthened” (Thielemann and Hobolth 2016: 644). This trend is confirmed by indexes of asylum policy restrictions such as the IMPIC Dataset (Schmid and Helbling 2016). Non-refoulement is far from being respected everywhere but legally accepted much more solidly than ever; even at the border. Forced removals are violent and tragic, but they concern a minority of asylum-seekers. Indeed, protections rates have been rather high in recent years.

There is a tension here because states simultaneously attempt to deter, prevent access, and deport. All this means that the territorial asymmetry of solidarity has widened. If a refugee manages to survive long enough to be rescued outside the territorial waters of Libya, he or she will be disembarked in Italy and the chances of being protected will improve. If refugees stay in Libya or elsewhere, they will be ignored.



Taken together, the lines of explanations I have outlined converge to better explain why a growing number of people put all their hopes in a journey to Europe. The exact measure of the explanatory contribution of each geohistorical evolution I identified is beyond the scope of this paper, but I hope to have contributed to deepen our understanding of a crisis for which adequate responses still need to be found. With that aim in mind and to quote Fernand Braudel (1958: 727), we should, avoid “dramatic & breathless interpretations” and try instead to capture the structural and progressive evolution of the geographies of connectivity, distance, territory and solidarity.



Betts, A. 2013. Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement. Cornell: Cornell University Press.
Braudel, F. 1958. La longue durée. Annales Economies Sociétés Civilisations 13 (4):725-753.
Butler, D. 2017. What the numbers say about refugees. Nature Clim. Change 543 (01 March 2017).
Castles, S. 2003. Towards a Sociology of Forced Migration and Social Transformation. Sociology 37 (1):13-34.
Crisp, J. 2003. A new asylum paradigm : globalization, migration and the uncertain future of the international refugee regime. New Issues in Refugee Research – United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Research Paper (100).
Landry, R. 2016. The “humanitarian smuggling” of refugees: criminal offence or moral obligation. RSC working paper (119).
Loescher, G. 2001. The UNHCR and world politics – A perilous path. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Price, M. E. 2009. Rethinking Asylum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sassen, S. 2016. A Massive Loss of Habitat – New Drivers for Migration. Sociology of Development 2 (2):204-233.
Schmid, S. D., and M. Helbling. 2016. Validating the Immigration Policies in Comparison (IMPIC) Dataset. WZB Berlin Social Science Center Discussion Paper (SP VI 2016–202).
Thielemann, E., and M. Hobolth. 2016. Trading numbers vs. rights? Accounting for liberal and restrictive dynamics in the evolution of asylum and refugee policies. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42 (4):643-664.


Photograph: Nicolas Economou /

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