In current times, the topic of refugee crisis in Europe is gradually gaining higher relevance, especially with regards to the latest figure concerning the number of migrants who applied for asylum in the 28 member states of the European Union, Norway and Switzerland in 2015: a record 1.3 million applications – nearly double the previous high water mark of roughly 700,000 that was set in 1992 after the fall of the Iron Curtain, according to an analysis of data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency.

However, although it has recently accelerated in speed and scale, migration to Europe is an ancient and wide phenomenon. Although migrants are not expressly mentioned in the European Convention on Human Rights (it is used, in fact, the term ”aliens” in Article 16 of the ECHR, Protocols 4 and 7 to the ECHR), they, as every human being, are entitled to human rights protection. A migrant, who is a person who moves from his/her country of usual residence or nationality to another country, may flee for economic or educational reasons, to escape from natural disasters caused by climate change or to escape persecution, human rights abuses, threats to life or physical integrity, war and civil unrest.

Usually the terms ”migrants” and ”aliens” are used synonymously, although there is a slight difference: an alien is ”an individual who is not a national of the State in which he or she is present” (UNGA 1985, Article 1). Bearing this in mind, we need to consider that in 2015 the total number of international migrants was estimated at 244 million people or 3.3% of the world’s population (UN International Migration Report 2015, p.21). Around 90% of them are composed of active economic migrants and members of their family and only about 8% of refugees or asylum-seekers (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2015). The European continent has faced (and is still facing nowadays) an unprecedented in mixed migratory flows along the Mediterranean Sea. The vast majority of refugees are leaving Syria, and while their exodus started at the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the flows grew exponentially, reaching a total number of registered Syrian refugees of 4.8 million by March 2016. The increase in irregular crosses of the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece has regrettably been correlated with an increase of deaths at sea. According to UNHCR’s figures for the year 2016, it was estimated that 241 263 refugees and migrants had arrived by sea to Europe (as of July 18th), while 2951 were estimated to have died or had gone missing at sea over that same period of time. It should also be noted that UNHCR stated that up to 70% of those arriving may be considered refugees and qualify for international protection under the 1951 Geneva Convention.

Yet as characterised by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Nils Muižnieks, in an opinion article published on the New York Times on March 14th, 2016, the unfolding crisis has ”elicited a chaotic response”. Indeed, 2016 saw many European states take unilateral action and national measures in their border and asylum policies in an attempt to limit the influx of refugees, by reducing the presumed pull-factors. In this context, only a common international action based on respect of fundamental rights and human dignity, as well as on solidarity and shared responsibility may bring an urgently needed solution: this must be the main objective of the UNHCR committee work.

Stefania Azzaro

Eugenio Ciliberti


Yannis Ktistakis, Protecting Migrants under the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter. A handbook for legal practitioners (2nd edition), Council of Europe, 2016

Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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“The Refugees Surge in Europe: Economic Challenge.”

“Asylum Statistics.”

“Syria Refugees crisis: six charts that show how Europe is struggling to respond.”

“Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts.”

“Compilation of data, situation and media reports on children in migration.”