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Responses to mixed migration in Europe: Implications for the humanitarian sector

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by John Borton and Sarah Collinson

For years nationals from outside the European Union (EU) have sought to enter the EU by irregular means, outside the regulatory norms of sending, transit and receiving countries. Since early 2015, however, the number of refugees and migrants entering (and trying to enter) the EU irregularly has increased dramatically, presenting the EU and its member states with profound organisational and political challenges and confronting the formal humanitarian sector with tests that it has struggled, and often failed, to meet.

Between January 2015 and September 2017, over 1.5 million refugees and irregular migrants arrived in Europe by sea. At least 9,600 died or went missing trying to make the crossing. During the peak months from July 2015 to March 2016, over 1m arrived in the space of nine months – principally in Greece, but also in Italy and to a much lesser extent Spain. The influx presented a humanitarian challenge arguably on a scale Europe had not faced since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In many key respects the response to that challenge, by states, regional institutions and the international humanitarian system, failed, and for long periods the basic material and protection needs of many refugees and irregular migrants were not met. For this to have happened in Europe – widely regarded as the birthplace of modern humanitarianism – with its high income and well-developed infrastructure, is both astonishing and shaming.

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