Migration and refugee governance in the Mediterranean: Europe and international organisations at a crossroads

Sarah Wolff


Can international organisations (IOs) be a catalyst for change if Europe is unable to agree on a solution to the current Syrian refugee crisis and broader issues of the deadly migration into the region? The paper argues that the current crisis is not only a European but a transregional governance crisis and shows how IOs have been instrumental in framing an alternative debate on migration, mobility and international protection in the Mediterranean.  It suggests a number of ways IOs can move towards influencing EU and Mediterranean migration and refugee policy.

Key findings

  • Two main challenges:
    • current refugee and migration governance in the Mediterranean is EU-driven and risk-averse. The prioritisation of fighting irregular migration and the externalisation of border controls has driven transregional governance efforts in the region.
    • regional forums (for example, the 5+5 process and the Rabat process) to tackle issue of irregular migration are mainly state-driven and are often confronted with a lack of comprehensive refugee and migration policies, particularly from Mediterranean countries.
  • IOs such as UNHCR and the IOM are increasingly advocating for a more humane approach to resolving the crisis by framing the debate around three key issues:
    1. Saving lives: Rescuing migrants at sea is an immediate measure that will stop people dying at sea.
    2. Safe ways to Europe: opening more legal migration channels should be opened; increased labour migration schemes and opportunities for student visas, and increased resettlement; fighting human trafficking and human smuggling.
    3. Addressing stranded migrants and mixed migratory flows: This new phenomenon calls for emergency humanitarian action. The interconnectedness of mixed migration demands a more sustained and collaborative approach to regional policy-making
  • The ability for IOs to effectively act on their pro-migrants rights discourse is constrained by a number of different factors including: the reality of their donors whose interests do not align; the focus on bureaucracy to manage the issue rather than politics; and the lack of successful cooperation between organisations and states with different levels of resources.  
  • An example of good practice is the increasing cooperation between Frontex partners organisations in capacity building, joint operations and risk analysis.


  • Share the expertise and knowledge of IOs such as IOM and UNHCR to EU staff and officials who often have little migration and asylum expertise.
  • Channel headquarter advocacy towards members of the European Parliament.
  • Encourage greater levels of adaptive interagency cooperation that may differ from ‘business as usual’.
  • Promote a transregional approach to develop subregional stategies that may mitigate the flow of irregular migration.
  • Highlight the issue as broader than affecting more than European member states; capitalise on global memberships, such as with NATO and the private sector.
  • Remain modest: Institutional expansionism, if not designed properly, can increase IOs’ dependence on funders such as the EU, but also dilute IOs’ objectives and thus contribute to their irrelevance vis-à-vis EU and Mediterranean countries.
  • Widen co-operation with Frontex that may lead to a socialisation of EU border guards to international legal norms.
  • Ensure the EU and Mediterranean partners reform their migration and refugee policies through specific task forces that could foster national dialogues.


Wolff, S. (2015). Migration and refugee governance in the Mediterranean: Europe and international organisations at a crossroads. Rome: Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI).