Do migrants to Europe know what they're getting into?

After another boat of migrants capsized in the Mediterranean to deadly effect, experts are saying migrants are making the trip without knowledge of the risks – and Europe's economic woes.

Dimitris Dimitriou/AP
Coast guard officers tie a boat to their vessel near the coast of Lefkada island in the Ionian Sea, western Greece, Friday. Twelve migrants, believed to be Syrians, were found dead after the boat still tied to rocks near the island of Lefkada capsized in calm weather, authorities said.

Another deadly shipwreck of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, this time off the coast of Greece, is drawing new scrutiny of immigrants' motives to make the dangerous trip to a Europe still wracked by unemployment.

The latest tragedy took place on the Greek island of Lefkada, where a boat overturned in calm weather, killing 12 migrants, who the Associated Press reports are believed to be Syrian. Another 15 migrants survived the incident.

The boat was thought to be headed to Italy, the destination of two ships carrying migrants that capsized early last month near the island of Lampedusa. More than 300 migrants, mostly Eritreans, died in a wreck on Oct. 3. A boat carrying Syrian refugees capsized just a week later, killing more than 30 people.

The scale of the latest accidents have once again reignited the European debate about immigration, leaving Europeans puzzled as to why thousands of people every year choose to face treacherous sea journeys in makeshift boats. 

"This cannot be easily understood from a Western perspective," says Franck Düvell, a senior immigration researcher at Oxford University, who points out that those who emigrate are not only fleeing war zones or trying to improve their lives. In many cases, for instance, an individual is not really given the choice of whether to emigrate or not. 

"It is often a family decision," says Dr. Düvell. "It is the extended family that decides who has to emigrate, and where. I have encountered the case of several Somalis, for example, who did not even know where they were going. The family arranged the whole trip with the smugglers, and they were just sent."

And despite years of economic woes and rampant unemployment in Europe – particularly in the southern countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece where migrants arrive – unrealistically rosy images of the Continent still abound in Africa and the Middle East, feeding a coercive pattern of emigration.

"Many of the young men [who immigrated] expected to do great things here, based on the stories they’d heard. They don’t dare tell their families what it’s really like," wrote Patrick Love of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the official blog of the Paris-based institution in July. "So they perpetuate the myth with stories of the good life, and that encourages their friends to try their luck too."

But, as they step on European soil, immigrants often find that migration is a one-way street.

"Going back means losing face" says Düvell. "You are not going to be welcomed if you return home" he adds, citing the example of a Gambian man who found himself in depression-stricken Greece. "When he phoned his family saying that conditions there were horrible, his father told him very clearly 'Do not come back.' He complied."

Once settled in Europe, most immigrants are able to find some work eventually, and many manage to send home sums of up to 150 Euros [$210] a month. "That is an amount that in many African countries can pay the bills for six people" says Alessio Menonna, a researcher at the Italian Institute of Multi-Ethnic Studies (ISMU).

But such generous remittances are often a stressful point for immigrants. "Family expectations are high. You have to pay for your brother's schooling, for your aunt's medical expenses, for everyone's food. There is pressure," says Mr. Menonna.

Besides those who succeed, the result of this high-pressure model of immigration is that there is a share of immigrants in Europe – which experts quantify as roughly the bottom 15 percent, or almost 1 million people in Italy alone – who face hellish living conditions. Those people "live in utter poverty [just] to be able to keep up appearances and send money back" wrote Mr. Love in the OECD official blog. For that 15 percent of immigrants, migrating effectively meant making their life worse. Yet they cannot return home.

"This problem will never be solved unless the EU invests in Africa directly, making sure that the money sent there does not end up wasted in corruption," says Luigi Rossi of Pane Quotidiano, a charity that provides about 3,500 hot meals a day for the poor and homeless in Milan.

"Europe needs to take a more active role" he adds. "Sending aid without supervising how it is actually used, as it is the case now, only helps to clear your conscience."

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