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Migration toward Europe and Foreign Terrorist Fighters

Francesco Bergoglio Errico, ICTYN, and Chiara Oldani, University of Viterbo
July 23, 2018

Since 2011, migratory flows toward Europe have increased and have been analysed by state and non-state actors. The Central Mediterranean route is a main area of political and humanitarian disputes, and underlines a structural phenomenon, involving different factors, such as organized crime, terrorism and radicalization, empowerment of transit countries and, on the other side, the antithetical policies of European Union members. The population of the sub-Sahara region will increase from 1,040,982,502 in 2018 to 2,123,232,162 in 2050, and the consequent migratory flows will likely grow and be difficult to manage. For a map of the migratory routes that reach Europe, see Relazione sulla politica dell'informazione per la sicurezza 2017.

There are three migratory routes to reach Europe: the Central Mediterranean, the Iberian and the Balkan. The first is the most discussed and exploited one.

The Central Mediterranean route is the main entry by sea to Europe. In fact, 16,139 people arrived between January 1 and July 5, 2018, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Most migrants come from Nigeria (37,551 in 2016 and 18,158 in 2017), a country affected by poverty and civil war and devastated by Boko Haram militant jihadists. The primary motivations pushing people to migrate this way are poverty, economic underdevelopment and the political instability of their countries, in particular in the Sahel region.

The Balkan route (also known as the Levant) refers to seaways between Greece and Turkey and a terrestrial way that goes from Turkey toward Bulgaria and the Balkan region. Between January 1 and July 5, 2018, 13,749 people arrived, according to the UNHCR. Most come from conflict areas in the Middle East: primarly Syria, and then Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. As a result of the refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, this route has become more difficult, especially by land, which has resulted in migrants being pushed back toward Egypt and Libya (the two main hubs) and increased the flows of the Central Mediterranean route.

The Iberian route goes from Morocco to Spain and toward the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco. According to the UNHCR, 18,723 people arrived in Europe between January 1 and July 5, 2018, from Guinea, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Algeria and Syria. This route may become the most popular way to enter Europe, especially if Italy closes the Libya-Italy seaway and the Turkish refugee agreement breaks down. This route is close to areas hit by political instability and conflicts, such as Mali, West Sahara and Mauritania.

Migration has a clandestine dimension. Migration has been exploited by extremists, organized crime and terrorist organizations, and is a serious challenge for the European states. According to Oltre Frontiera, approximately 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) or returnees from the Syrian and Iraqi war zones survived after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State. About 1,500 FTFs have already returned to Europe, and some are now heading back toward Syria and Iraq, as well as Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Others are heading west, returning to their home countries in Europe, using one of the three routes.

Among the destinations, the Balkans — in particular Bosnia and Kosovo — are very attractive for their strong jihadist presence and proximity to Italy and Austria, two of the most sought-after destinations. The risk of FTFs reaching Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco remains high.

The main danger is that FTFs, with the aim of reorganization, work with local criminals, rebels and terrorist groups that may be affiliated to al Qaeda or ISIS, such as AQIM, JNIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabab.

This complex situation presents two main risks. The first is that FTFs stay anonymous when they reach Italy, Greece or Spain in boats and infiltrate the migratory routes as simple economic migrants or refugees, and then successfully return to European countries, especially their target countries. The second risk is that people experiencing a human, social or psychological crisis, such as migrants, are precisely the target of jihadist recruiters, who exploit individuals' vulnerability, above all, the youngest and most desperate. Consequently, recruiters radicalize and indoctrinate these vulnerable people through extremist and jihadist ideologies and with economic help.

Radicalization, terrorism and illegal migration are interconnected factors that expose Europe to certain risks. At present, each EU state relies on its own domestic policy. The Schengen and Dublin treaties (on free movement within the EU) have been called into question, making a common European system difficult to agree on and further revealing the political weakness of the EU. The European Union should come up with a binding multilateral agreement to manage migration that alleviates the strain on southern countries, Italy in particular, from the management of this heavy burden of human beings trying to reach the coasts, sometimes unsuccessfully.

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Francesco Bergoglio Errico
Francesco Bergoglio Errico is a member of the European Expert Network on Terrorism, a senior research analyst at the International Counter-Terrorism Youth Network and a member of the Anthropologist for Criminologists Volunteer Group at Rebibbia Prison in Rome. Follow him at @fra_bergerr.
Chiara Oldani
Chiara Oldani is professor of monetary economics at the University of Viterbo and director of the G7 and G20 Research Groups' Rome office. She is a member of the scientific committee of the Fondazione Ugo La Malfa, a research associate at the Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis at Australian National University and the director of research at the Rome-based Assonebb. She was a visiting scholar at CIGI in 2014, the Cambridge Endowment for Research in Finance at the University of Cambridge in 2007 and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. She has taught at Luiss Guido Carli University and the Italian Society for International Organization in Rome. Follow her at @chiaraoldani.

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