Recent shipwrecks highlight continued mishandling of migrant crisis

Despite a decrease in migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the sinking of two boats off of Greece highlight the persistent dangers of migrant and refugee passages. E.U. member states continue to pass blame as the death toll mounts. 

Jeremias Gonzalez/AP
Migrants with life jackets sail in a wooden boat as they are being rescued, Aug. 27, 2022, in the Mediterranean sea. Back-to-back shipwrecks of migrant boats off Greece this week have reemphasized the dangers of the Mediterranean migration route to Europe.

The back-to-back shipwrecks of migrant smuggling boats off Greece have once again put the spotlight on the dangers of the Mediterranean migration route, the risks migrants and refugees are willing to take, and the political infighting that has thwarted a safe European response to people fleeing war, poverty, and climate change.

Here’s a look at the migration situation across the Mediterranean Sea:

What happened to two smugglers’ boats off Greece?

The death toll off a Greek island rose to 22 on Thursday after the separate sinkings of two migrant boats. A dozen people are still missing. The vessels went down hundreds of miles apart, in one case prompting a dramatic overnight rescue effort as island residents and firefighters pulled shipwrecked migrants to safety up steep cliffs.

The Greek shipwrecks came just days after Italy commemorated the ninth anniversary of one of the deadliest Mediterranean shipwrecks in recent memory, the Oct. 3, 2013 capsizing of a migrant ship off Lampedusa, Sicily, in which 368 people died.

What are the trends in Mediterranean migrant arrivals?

So far this year, the International Organization of Migration has recorded around 109,000 “irregular” arrivals to the Mediterranean countries of Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and Malta by land or sea. This has made immigration a hot political topic in those European Union nations.

U.N. refugee officials note that overall numbers of migrants seeking to come to Europe this way has decreased over the years, to an average of around 120,000 annually. They call that a relatively “manageable” number, especially compared to the 7.4 million Ukrainians who have fled their homeland this year to escape Russia’s invasion, and were welcomed by European countries.

“We’ve seen how quickly and how rapidly a response was mounted to deal with that situation in a very humane and commendable way,” said Shabia Mantoo, spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva. “If we can see that happen very concretely in this situation, why can’t it be applied for 120,000 people that are coming across to Europe on a yearly basis?”

Others see Europe’s harsh response to Mediterranean migrants, who often come from Africa, and its welcoming of Slavic Ukrainian migrants as racist.

How dangerous is the Mediterranean?

So far this year the IOM has reported 1,522 dead or missing migrants in the Mediterranean. Overall, the IOM says 24,871 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014, with the real number believed to be even higher given the number of shipwrecks that never get reported.

“The voyage toward Italy has been confirmed to be the most dangerous,” said the ISMU foundation in Italy, which conducts research on migration trends.

The Central Mediterranean migration route that takes migrants from Libya or Tunisia north to Europe is the deadliest known migration route in the world, accounting for more than half of the reported deaths in the Mediterranean that IOM has tracked since 2014. The route has Italy as its prime destination.

What are the deadliest known smuggling shipwrecks?

On April 18, 2015, the Mediterranean’s deadliest known shipwreck in living memory occurred when an overcrowded fishing boat collided 77 nautical miles off Libya with a freighter that was trying to come to its rescue. Only 28 people survived. At first it was feared the hull held the remains of 700 people. Forensic experts who set out to try to identify all the dead concluded in 2018 that there were originally 1,100 people on board.

On Oct. 3, 2013, a trawler packed with more than 500 people, many from Eritrea and Ethiopia, caught fire and capsized within sight of an uninhabited islet off Italy’s southern island of Lampedusa. Local fishermen rushed to try to help save lives. In the end, 155 survived and 368 people died.

One week later, a shipwreck occurred on Oct. 11, 2013, further out at sea, 60 miles south of Lampedusa in what has become known in Italy as the “slaughter of children.” In all, more than 260 people died, among them 60 children. The Italian newsweekly L’Espresso in 2017 published the audio recordings of the migrants’ desperate calls for help and Italian and Maltese authorities seemingly delaying the rescue.

What are other Mediterranean migration routes to Europe?

The Western Mediterranean route is used by migrants seeking to reach Spain from Morocco or Algeria. The Eastern Mediterranean route, where the shipwrecks occurred this week off Greece, has traditionally been used by Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and other non-African migrants who flee first to Turkey and then try to reach Greece or other European destinations.

Greece was a key transit point for hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees entering the EU in 2015-16, many fleeing wars in Iraq and Syria, though the numbers dropped sharply after the EU and Turkey reached a deal in 2016 to limit smugglers. Greece has since toughened its borders and built a steel wall along its land border with Turkey. Greece has also been accused by Turkey and some migration experts of pushing back migrants, a charge it denies.

For its part, Greece says Turkey has failed to stop smugglers active on its shoreline and has been using migrants to apply political pressure to the whole European Union.

How has migration divided the EU’s 27 nations?

Mediterranean countries have for years complained that they have been left to bear the brunt of welcoming and processing migrants, and have long demanded other European countries step up and take them in.

Poland, Hungary, and other Eastern European nations refused an EU plan to share the burdens of carrying for the migrants.

Human rights groups have condemned how the EU in recent years has outsourced migrant rescues to the Libyan coast guard, which brings the migrants back to horrific camps on land where many are beaten, raped, and abused.

“Over the years, the routes have changed but not the tragedies,” said the Sant’Egidio Community as it commemorated the 2013 Lampedusa anniversary this week. Working with other Christian groups, the Catholic charity has brought more than 5,000 refugees to Italy via “humanitarian corridors” and has called for more safe passages to be organized so migrants don’t have to risk dangerous Mediterranean crossings with smugglers.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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