The Mediterranean graveyard of Europe

Safya Khan-Ruf - 30 06 17

The image of the sinking boat overloaded with refugees has become a symbol of the ongoing disaster on the Mediterranean Sea.

The thousands of men, women and children who have drowned represent the multiple crises in the surrounding regions, from the broken promise of the Arab Spring and the bombed cities of Syria, to the lucrative smuggling routes across North Africa and the divided European nations frozen into inaction.

The countries bordering the Mediterranean, from Algeria and Egypt to Syria, Turkey, Italy and Greece, face an unprecedented challenge with the influx of refugees and migrants.

More than 5,000 people died or went missing on the Med last year, according to the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR – more than three times the number of deaths caused by the sinking of the Titanic. And that’s a conservative estimate.

This year, the number of dead and missing has already reached 2,030. This includes two of the three shipwrecks found on the World Refugee Day, 20 June.

Courtesy of Ani Bashar/Flickr

Earlier this week, Italy threatened to stop vessels of other countries from bringing refugees and migrants to its ports. Italy’s EU representative Maurizio Massari warned in a letter to European Union leaders that the situation was “unsustainable”.

Many feel the EU has looked the other way, leaving individual countries on the frontline such as Italy struggling to keep up with the arrivals.

Last year alone, more than 360,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe, split mainly between Italy and Greece, while this year more than 77,000 have already made the journey.

“People in distress at sea deserve rescue and we have a duty in Europe to rescue them” 

Federico Fossi, a senior spokesperson for the UNHCR, says he hopes Italy’s position is just a threat to urge the EU to do more.

“France has been closing its borders with Italy and with the weak re-localisation mechanism in place, many refugees and migrants remain in Italy,” he explains.

It is unclear what a halt to boats carrying refugees and migrants would look like. The Italian coastguard coordinates all the search and rescue ships reaching Italy, from NGO crowd-funded ships to merchant ships passing close to a sinking boat.

Danger on the journey

Deaths across the Mediterranean do not only come from drowning (due to the dangerous journey and poor sea-worthiness of many of the vessels).

Smugglers often overcrowd boats and search-and-rescue teams have found bodies of people asphyxiated by the weight of hundreds of others, or drowned at the bottom of dinghies in a mix of seawater and gasoline.

The lack of safe routes into Europe give smugglers great power. Migrants and refugees that make it to shore have reported being kept in caves, ditches and holes for days and even weeks, before being forced out onto the sea.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an independent humanitarian organisation, also reports widespread sexual abuse, executions and even torture in Libya.

Many of the women rescued on the Mediterranean Sea were pregnant through rape, and the threat of sexual violence has caused some women to opt for long-term contraceptive implants before they travel, to ensure they don’t become pregnant.

Courtesy of Maurizio, Francesco Mazzola/Flickr
Why cross the Mediterranean?

People have been making their way to Europe for decades but over the past few years, the numbers have soared.

In 2015 alone, more than one million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea, often travelling from Turkey or North Africa. In the same year, 95,000 unaccompanied minors claimed asylum in Europe, having made the journey alone or been separated from their parents.

NGOs report many of those who make the journey pay huge sums of money for an uncertain and sometimes deadly future.

Some are deceived by the smugglers into thinking it will be a simple journey; others do not know that Libya is at war and many are not aware that they will not necessarily be welcomed in Europe and given the right to work.

In March 2016, the EU made a deal with Turkey to prevent unchecked arrivals into Europe and providing for (supposedly) easy return back to Turkey.

The agreement aimed to reduce the huge flow of smuggled migrants and refugees travelling from Turkey to Greece. In exchange, the EU member states would increase resettlement of refugees residing in Turkey.

Courtesy of Kasper Flörchinger/Flickr

The longer more perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy has now become the main migrant route into Europe.

Fossi says the EU-Turkey deal is not the cause of the surge of people sailing through the Mediterranean route – most taking the route are from sub-Saharan Africa while those in Turkey were mostly Syrians.

However, there is no doubt the journey is a lot more dangerous. According to the International Organisation for Migration’s Missing Migrants project, the rate at which migrants die or vanish when departing from Libya is 10 times higher than through the previous route to Greece.

Action across the Mediterranean

The influx of migrants and refugees to Europe is impossible to halt while the root causes for the migration remain.

Those on the move come from dozens of countries and move via fluid networks of smugglers.

Many of the lucky ones who succeed in their journey will be judged economic migrants in Europe, but returning them to their countries of origin is often impossible as the nation may be too unstable or the government refuses to accept them.

Even before the sharp rise in 2015, thousands of volunteers across Europe have come to places like Italy to help those seeking asylum and participate in search and rescue missions.

Jessie Seal is a volunteer for the Jugend Rettet, a German-based organisation made up of a network of young Europeans.

“As young Europeans we cannot – and don’t want to – accept the status quo of the European asylum policies. We need a programme focusing on rescue from maritime emergency and we need to decriminalise the search for asylum…

“People are kept away from ‘Fortress Europe’ by newly-built walls and are generally restricted in their mobility – we oppose those measures,” the Jugend Retter website states.

The group crowdfunded a ship, The IUVENTA, which has been rescuing people in the Mediterranean Sea for nearly a year.

The crew is composed entirely of volunteers with specialised skills, such as doctors and ship engineers, with a fire fighter from Spain as head of the mission.

“People in distress at sea deserve rescue and we have a duty in Europe to rescue them,” Seal says.

Like many other NGOs, Jugend Rettet is trying to fill the gap left by the EU that is caused by the complex and divided politics across Europe in response to the influx.

NGOs and organisations like the UNHCR and MSF have called for safe passageways for refugees and migrants in order to prevent more deaths across the Mediterranean. The UNHCR has also called for the search and rescue mechanism to be strengthened and for the root causes of forced migration to be addressed.

Meanwhile, far-right ‘identitarian’ movements have mobilised across the continent to crowdfund for their own ship to impede the humanitarian rescue effort, and harass and intimidate NGOs and their staff.

It is unlikely that refugees and migrants will stop fleeing the desperate and dangerous situations they face across the world and which makes them seek stability in Europe.

So as the number of dead across the Mediterranean Sea keeps rising, the frozen inaction of the EU and individual member states needs to be broken. People will continue to seek safety and the complex issue will not be resolved by turning a blind eye to the dead.


Stay informed

Sign up for emails from HOPE not hate to make sure you stay up to date with the latest news, and to receive simple actions you can take to help spread HOPE.


We couldn't do it without our supporters

Fund research, counter hate and support and grow inclusive communities by donating to HOPE not hate today

I am looking for...


Useful links

Close Search X
Donate to HOPE not hate