Hotspots, Relocation and “Secondary Movements”

What is commonly described as the “refugee crisis” of 2015 should rather be interpreted as the failure of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) to confine incoming migrants in the first country of entry, where asylum applications must be examined according to the Dublin regulation. It was indeed a crisis of the EU reception regime, which also made clear how such a regime is far more concerned with the control of mobility than the protection of applicants and beneficiaries of international protection. As a response to this crisis, the EU and its member states intensified their efforts to regain control over the mobility of incoming migrants along three main lines of intervention: the “hotspot approach”, relocation schemes, and the reintroduction of border controls in some border points within the Schengen area.

Hotspot approach

One of the first measures that was adopted in the framework of the European Agenda on Migration was the introduction of the “hotspot approach”, which consists in a set of procedures to be deployed in border points at the EU external border in order to swiftly identify, register, and fingerprint newly arrived migrants. This approach has been hitherto implemented in Greece and Italy where 9 hotspot centres (5 in Greece and 4 in Italy) have been set up. After disembarkation, migrants are transferred in these centres where they are registered and then channeled through the relevant administrative procedure, at least on paper. In hotspot centres, national authorities work alongisde EU agencies, such as EASO, Frontex, Europol and Eurojust, as well as international organisations like UNHCR and OIM.

Relocation schemes

In September 2015, the Council of the European Union introduced two relocation schemes as a temporary derogation to the principle of the first country of entry that underpins the Dublin regulation. These schemes were supposed to relieve pressure from Greece and Italy by transferring asylum seekers to another member state, according to a distribution key that was calculated on the gross domestic product, the size of the population, the average number of asylum applications per million inhabitants over the period 2010-2014, and the unemployment rate. Importantly, relocation schemes were not available to all asylum seekers, but only to those who were deemed “in clear need of protection”, meaning that they belonged to nationalities with a minimum first instance recognition rate of 75% across the EU. Initially, the two schemes envisaged the relocation of 160,000 asylum seekers over a two-year period, but the number of people who were actually relocated is much lower (less than 35,000 according to the Commission’s Progress Report on the Implementation of the European Agenda on Migration published in March 2019).

“Secondary movements”

In the EU jargon, “secondary movements” are those unauthorised movements made by applicants and beneficiaries of international protection in order to leave the country of first arrival, which is the one in which they are confined by the Dublin system. The question of “secondary movements” took centre stage in the wake of the events of 2015, when internal border controls were temporarily reintroduced in several border points within the Schengen area to stop these movements, especially by countries bordering Italy. The heightened emphasis on “secondary movements” was also evident in the new legislative proposals put forward by the European Commission to reform the CEAS. Even though these proposals have never been accepted, as the reform of the CEAS is still on hold due to disagreements between member states, the fact that they included several  sanctions against those leaving the first country of entry demonstrates the significance acquired by this issue. 


Through an extensive, multi-sited qualitative study, CONDISOBS investigates whether the above-mentioned measures have been successful in achieving their expected results, namely the containment of incoming migrants in the first country of entry through hotspots and the reduction of “secondary movements” through the policy of relocation and the strengthening of border controls. CONDISOBS also seeks to understand what are the effects produced by these measures on the ground with a view to provide insights and recommendations for the future of the CEAS and the Schengen area. 

More specifically, the first strand of research investigates the functioning of hotspots in Greece and Italy and their role within the EU politics of migration management. The second strand of research focuses on the implementation of relocation measures, the practical difficulties in the organisation and implementation of transfers, and the trajectories of those asylum seekers who were relocated. The third strand of research deals with the effects of the reintroduction of border controls in three strategic border points through which migrants have attempted to leave Italy in recent years (Bardonecchia, Brenner and Ventimiglia).


CONDISOBS is a qualitative multi-sited study. It is primarily based on semi-structured interviews with EU representatives, international organisations, national authorities, local authorities, NGOs, associations, activists, and migrants. If possible, interviews will be integrated by ethnographic observations of border practices in the border points under analysis.


CONDISOBS explores the regime of government targeting asylum seekers in the EU by carrying out a multi-sited empirical study of the ways in which this regime has been reconfigured after the 2015 crisis. With its findings, the study will not only contribute to scholarship on asylum, migration and borders in the European context, but it will also provide a significant political contribution on two key issues around which the future configuration of the EU seems to rest on. The first is the reform of the Common European Asylum System, and in particular the reform of the Dublin regulation, while the second concerns the future of the Schengen agreement in a time in which freedom of movement between member states is increasingly contested.