Home » international news » Why 35,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in one year

Why 35,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in one year

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 14 June 2015, 20:16 IST

The crisis

  • 900 migrants drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean on 19 April 2015.
  • The migrants use smuggler boats to flee their countries for various reasons.
  • This year\'s migrant death toll is already above 1,800.
  • Around 35,000 were killed last year.

Why they flee

  • A four-year civil war in Syria has left 7.2 million displaced.
  • Nigeria is facing escalating violence because of terrorist group Boko Haram.
  • The youth from Eritrea are leaving in droves because of the ruling autocratic government.

The EU response

  • Plans to blow up trafficker boats to reduce number of migrants.
  • Set up offshore detention camps in Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia.
  • Increase presence at sea to enhance search and rescue capabilities.
  • Focus on world issues to stop the inflow of migrants.

Europe was given a vivid reminder on 19 April why it must come to a consensus soon on a better immigration policy.

A boat smuggling hundreds of migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost 900 migrants drowned - making it the Mediterranean's deadliest migrant disaster up to now.

This calamity came at the heels of two others: On 12 April, nearly 400 people drowned in the Mediterranean when their vessel capsized after setting off from Libya for Italy.

And on 8 February, at least 300 people died after four dinghies carrying them got waterlogged.

Why did almost 900 migrants drown on 19 April?

A boat capsized 193 km south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Reports claim the tragedy occurred when migrants on the 20-metre boat rushed to one side upon sighting the Portuguese merchant ship King Jacob, thinking they would be rescued.

This incident has pushed the 2015 Mediterranean death toll past 1,800, compared to about 90 such refugee deaths in the same period a year ago.

According to Italian prosecutors, a Bangladeshi survivor flown to Sicily for treatment told them that 950 people were on board, including hundreds who had been locked in the hold by the smugglers.

Who are these migrants? Where are they going and why?

Refugees being transported across the Mediterranean Sea by smugglers come mostly from North African and West Asian countries.

Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta are inevitably the 'countries of arrival' because they occupy Europe's closest border with the African continent.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has given a breakdown of the nationalities of those who arrived between January and October 2014, when the agency counted 2,00,000 people who landed in southern Europe.

It does not include those who died or disappeared while crossing:

  • Syrians: 31%
  • Eritreans: 18%
  • Afghans: 5%
  • Malians: 5%
  • Nigerians: 4%
  • Gambians: 3%
  • Somalis: 3%
  • Palestinians: 3%
  • Bangladeshis: 2%
  • Other sub-Saharan Africans: 10%
  • Other nationalities: 16%

North African refugees wait to be processed at a immigration facility in Sicily, Italy (Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

What are some of the conflicts causing migrants to flee?

Most are fleeing war, terror, poverty and hunger.

In Syria, a four-year civil war has seen more than 2,20,000 people killed. On one side is President Bashar al-Assad's government and on the other, a loose faction of various groups including the Free Syrian Army.

In 2013, Hezbollah entered the war in support of the Syrian army and by mid-2014, even the Islamic State had laid a stake and taken over a third of Syria's territory.

Horrific human rights violations are widespread and basic necessities like food and medical care are sparse. So far, more than three million refugees have registered with the UNHCR and over 7.2 million people have been internally displaced.

[twittable]In Syria, horrific human rights violations have forced millions to flee[/twittable]

Even though there isn't a live civil war in Eritrea, Eritreans are second to Syrians in the number of migrant arrivals.

The reasons that most Eritreans cite for leaving include conscription with very low pay and a constant threat of imprisonment for offending someone in authority.

Dominated by self-appointed president Isaias Afwerki, the real power in the country lies with informal networks that change at the president's discretion.

The National Assembly has not met in a decade, and there is no published national budget. Political prisoners are left rotting in jail for years and a 'deeply flawed' Constitution, ratified in 1997, apparently still sits on a shelf in the president's office.


Africans are fleeing from war and strife, in hope for a better future (Photo: Giles Clark/Getty Images)

Thousands are also fleeing northeastern Nigeria on a daily basis as violence perpetrated by the terrorist group Boko Haram continues to escalate.

Nigerian authorities have reported that a quarter of a million people are now displaced within the country and more than 60,000 people have fled across the border.

In a particularly horrific episode in April 2014, the Boko Haram seized more than 200 schoolgirls from their school in the town of Chibok. Most are still missing.

Thousands have been killed in separate incidents, and in some cases, entire towns have been wiped out. A few weeks ago, former military general Muhammadu Buhari was elected with the hope of bringing an end to the terror.

Why is Libya a launching pad?

Libya has had no effective government since the 2011 uprising that drove out Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Hundreds of different armed groups are fighting for territory and influence. Human trafficking has flourished in this climate.

Smugglers, believed to have links to the militias, are making huge profit from packing desperate migrants into unsafe boats bound for Europe.

For migrants, Libya's destabilisation has made it the easiest way out of Africa.

How many migrants come from Africa each year?

Of the 2.7 lakh migrants who arrived in Europe illegally last year, more than 2.2 lakh came through North Africa - a whopping 138 per cent rise over the previous year.

An added 35,000 were killed in their attempt to reach Europe. Italian officials claim that over 15,000 have arrived this year already.

That figure is set to soar soon as the summer weather makes it easier to cross the sea.

What happens to migrants after they arrive?

Every refugee is entitled to asylum in Europe under the Common European Asylum System.

The Dublin Regulation, central to the EU's asylum and migration policy, stipulates that the country of first arrival must take responsibility for the asylum claim of the migrants.

The measures to deal with the problem include a proposal to create offshore detention centres in countries such as Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia.

A large part of the effort is funded by the EU's Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, which provides for 3.137 billion Euros for the period of 2014-2020.

What is EU doing about the issue?

The Triton programme, EU's current effort to rescue and rehabilitate migrants, has been slammed as 'inadequate, ineffective and underfunded' in comparison to its predecessor, Italy's Mare Nostrum programme, which saved more than a lakh people last year.

Mare Nostrum, which had a budget of nearly $10 million compared to Triton's $3.2 million, was shut down in November 2014 amid claims that it encouraged more refugees to seek passage to Europe.

However, the recent spike in the number of nautical disasters in the Mediterranean has forced the European Council to re-engage with the issue of maritime migration.

Atop a border fence separating Morocco from the north African Spanish enclave of Melila (Photo: Blasco De Avellaneda/AFP/Getty Images)

The EU Council convened in Luxembourg on April 20 to discuss pressing world issues, including the ongoing civil conflict in Libya.

On April 23, EU leaders gathered for a special meeting on the Mediterranean crisis. In a joint communique, they pledged that the EU would "mobilise all efforts at its disposal to prevent further loss of life at sea and to tackle the root causes of the human emergency that we face, in cooperation with the countries of origin and transit."

The EU leaders declared that their most pressing priority is "to prevent more people from dying at sea". To that end, they committed to increasing the EU's "presence at sea, to fight the traffickers, to prevent illegal migration flows and to reinforce internal solidarity and responsibility."

For example, they pledged to bolster search and rescue capabilities "by at least tripling the financial resources for this purpose in 2015 and 2016 and reinforcing the number of assets".

The EU Council also declared that it would "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers".

What are some of the main routes used by migrants to get to the EU?

Central Mediterranean: Western Libya is the main launching pad and is where most 'people smugglers' operate. The crossing was described as "the most lethal route in the world" in 2014 by UNHCR.

Eastern Mediterranean: Numbers are soaring because of Turkey's hosting of more than one million refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most go by boat or land from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria or Cyprus.

Western Mediterranean: Refugees take boats from Morocco or Algeria to reach Spain or other Spanish outposts in North Africa.

Europe Migrants EMBED

Fleeing migrants are desperate to move to Europe and find ways to culturally assimilate (Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

Recent Mediterranean migrant disasters:

April 19, 2015: About 650 migrants feared drowned as boat capsizes in Libyan waters south of Lampedusa.

April 12, 2015: Some 400 migrants feared drowned after their vessel capsizes off Libya.

February 2015: At least 300 migrants feared drowned as four dinghies get into trouble after leaving Libyan coast in bad weather.

September 2014: At least 300 migrants drown off Malta after smugglers ram a boat when its occupants refuse to move to a smaller one. Survivors said it was "mass murder".

October 2013: More than 360 Africans perished when the tiny boat they were crammed onto caught fire within sight of the coast of Lampedusa in Italy.

First published: 22 April 2015, 17:12 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.