Economic and Social Research Council
Printable version

UN Summit to hear new research on why refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean in 2015

Participants at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants this week will hear the findings of a ground-breaking research project, which has identified the reasons why refugees and migrants left their home countries to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in 2015.

The study, part of the wider ESRC-funded Mediterranean Migration Research Programme, is one of the largest of its kind.

As part of 'Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis' (MEDMIG) project, researchers interviewed 500 refugees and migrants about their experiences. Over three months when the number of arrivals were at their peak, the researchers spoke to people who had arrived on the shores of Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey, as well those who had crossed into Europe using the Central Mediterranean route from Libya in North Africa. Their findings on these two routes will be discussed at the UN Summit in New York on 20 September.

The results of the study highlight: 

  • Eighty-eight per cent of those arriving in Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean route said that they left their homes because of persecution, violence, death threats or human rights abuse.
  • Of this group, more than a quarter said the 'Islamic State' group (IS) played a significant part in their decision to leave, with many being detained, tortured or forced to watch beheadings.  
  • Sixty-six per cent of those arriving in Italy mentioned factors that could be described as 'forced migration' including violence, death threats and religious persecution. Those from West and East Africa most commonly left because of the threat posed by militia groups and terrorist organisations or indefinite forced conscription in Eritrea.
  • Over 75 per cent of those who crossed via Libya experienced physical violence, and over a quarter spoke of experiences related to the death of fellow travellers.

Although the arrival of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean during 2015 was often presented as a single, uninterrupted movement of people to Europe – often using graphics depicting arrows from North Africa and the Middle East into Greece and Italy – the researchers found that these stories and images of 'mass movement' into Europe conceal a much more complex picture.

"The vast majority of refugees and migrants who are on the move remain in their own countries and regions of origin. Those who came to Europe in 2015 did so principally because they had been driven from their homes and found it impossible to rebuild their lives elsewhere," says Professor Heaven Crawley from Coventry University, leader of the MEDMIG project. 

"People told us that they left their countries because the violence had become intolerable and they feared for their safety and that of their families. These included a large number of Syrians, subject to almost daily barrel bombings, sniper fire and other attacks." 

Researchers also interviewed refugees and migrants who had arrived in Italy having made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya and North Africa. Despite the frequent portrayal of people making this journey as 'economic migrants', only 38 per cent cited economic factors as a reason for leaving their home country. 

There was often an overlap between forced and other forms of migration. Many interviewees said their ability to earn money and provide for their families had been curtailed due to conflict, violence and political persecution. They had often started their journey months or even years before, eventually travelling to Libya, attracted by the opportunities for work in the oil and construction sectors. Many felt that they had no choice other than to move to Europe due to the escalating violence in Libya since 2014. 

"The migration flow across the Central Mediterranean route is diverse in many ways. The experiences of refugees and migrants vary, but what is common for most of them is that journeys are getting longer and sea crossings are more dangerous. Journeys are often marked by violence and exploitation, especially in Libya," says Dr Nando Sigona from the University of Birmingham, co-author of the report on the Central Mediterranean route (PDF, 977Kb).

"Over 75 per cent of the people we spoke to who had crossed Libya explicitly referred to experiences of physical violence. Over a quarter spoke of experiences related to death in some way. The sea journey was considered to be the only way out of Libya: those boarding the boats did not think that there was any other way of escaping."

The researchers also found that increased migration across the Mediterranean was closely associated with difficulties in securing access to protection or work, due to newly introduced visas as well as cascading border closures in the countries people had previously travelled to. As a consequence, refugees and migrants were channelled towards Turkey and Libya - where they often could not secure a status or livelihood - and often had no choice other than to use smugglers to get out of these countries and find safety elsewhere.

"Our research has found that smugglers are a more complex phenomenon than typically assumed," says Dr Franck Düvell, based at the University of Oxford's Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and co-author of the report on the Eastern Mediterranean route (PDF, 1Mb).

"Whilst they profit from, and often exploit, the needs of refugees and migrants, they are also often the only ones who help people escaping war, terror or persecution. They can only thrive due to the absence of alternative legal migration channels. And whether we like it or not, often smugglers are an essential part of the journey."

The final report of the MEDMIG project will be launched in Brussels on 3 November 2016.

Further information

  • Kelly Baker-Adams, Coventry University press officer
    Telephone: 024 776 59752  
  • University of Birmingham press office
    Telephone: 0121 454 8254
  • Professor Heaven Crawley
    Telephone: 07813 127121
  • Dr Franck Duvell
    Telephone: 07587 009605
  • Dr Nando Sigona
    Telephone: 07758 403840

Notes for editors

  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.
  2. MEDMIG is an ESRC-DfID funded research project led by the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University (UK), in collaboration with the University of Birmingham's Institute for Superdiversity (UK), the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford (UK), ELIAMEP (Greece), FIERI (Italy), People for Change Foundation (Malta) and Yasar University (Turkey).
  3. MEDMIG is one of eight projects that form part of the larger ESRC Mediterranean Migration research programme.
  4. On 19 September 2016, the UN General Assembly will host a high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.
    On the margins of the General Assembly, on 20 September, the United States President Obama is hosting the Leaders' Summit on Refugees, alongside co-hosts Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden, which will appeal to governments to pledge significant new commitments on refugees. While the Leaders' Summit will focus on refugees, not migrants, the General Assembly High-Level Summit will address large movements of both. The two events will complement one another.
    Coventry University is the only British university that has been accredited to attend the Summit.
  5. Professor Crawley and other members of the research team will be speaking about the findings of their research at a side-panel on 'Human rights protection in the context of large movements of refugees and migrants' organised by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to be held on 20 September. Please contact Professor Crawley to register for the event.
  6. Coventry University is a dynamic, global and transformational 'modern university' whose roots can be traced back to 1843 to the Coventry School of Design. With a proud tradition as a provider of innovative teaching and learning and a focus on impactful research, the University has established a robust reputation for pushing the boundaries of higher education regionally, nationally and across the world.
    Through its links with leading-edge businesses and organisations in a variety of countries and industries, Coventry University's 24,000+ students enjoy access to placements and international opportunities which ensure that their employment prospects are enhanced by the time they graduate. Its students also benefit from state-of-the-art equipment and facilities – on both its Coventry and London campuses – in all academic disciplines, from health, business and performing arts to industrial design, engineering and computing.
    Coventry was named 'University of the Year' in the THE Awards 2015, and as of 2015 the institution is the country’s top modern university in the Guardian University Guide – in which it ranks 15th overall – and the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, which for the past three years has named Coventry the 'Modern University of the Year'.
  7. The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world's top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries
Channel website:

Share this article

Latest News from
Economic and Social Research Council