For Those Crossing the Mediterranean, a Higher Risk of Death

October 27, 2016
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

Migrants from Eritrea hold their children after being rescued in the Mediterranean Sea from a crowded wooden boat about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, on Aug. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

For the refugees and migrants who made the desperate decision to attempt a perilous crossing across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe last year, there was a one in 269 chance they would die.

This year, it’s a one in 88 chance.

In the first 10 months of this year, 3,740 people have died while trying to cross, according to figures released this week by the United Nations Refugee Agency. The death toll is rapidly closing in on the number who died during the journey last year: 3,771.

Yet while more than 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean last year, only a fraction of that number have made it across this year — 327,800.

“This is the worst we have seen,” William Spindler, a spokesman for the U.N. Refugee Agency told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday. He attributed the higher number of fatalities to several factors, from the use of a deadlier route that begins in North Africa and ends in Italy, to the changing tactics of smugglers.

“Clearly, this year, we’ve seen the situation at sea changing with much more risky crossings,” said Aurélie Ponthieu, a humanitarian specialist on displacement at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the relief organizations carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

The vast majority of the more than 1 million migrants and refugees who reached Europe’s shores last year traveled from Turkey to Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration. While dangerous in its own right, the Turkey to Greece route was considered a safer way to Europe than the path from Libya to Italy, which accounted for roughly 77 percent of deaths in 2015, IOM said. In the first 10 months of this year, 87 percent of fatalities have happened on the same route.

Traffic on the Turkey to Greece route has dropped off significantly in the wake of a deal worked out between the European Union and Turkey in March, which aid organizations have criticized for not guaranteeing the long-term safety of asylum seekers. They say the deal doesn’t go far enough to ensure that anyone returned to Turkey won’t be sent back to the very countries they fled from.

Meanwhile, despite its deadliness, the Libya to Italy route has only become more popular as the humanitarian crisis fueled by the Syrian war has spread across the region.
The Economist explains:

According to Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano, the authors of ‘Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour,’ the route to Europe through Libya became popular with sub-Saharan Africans in 2012 thanks to Syrian refugees who travelled to Libya through Egypt. They were much richer than the locals, and it was their demand that created the trafficking networks. When their numbers fell, smugglers turned to Libya’s resident population of sub-Saharan Africans to maintain demand, and then to recruiters in west Africa to bring more.

“The rescue has become part of the journey,” Ponthieu said. “Smugglers don’t sell the journey to Italy, they sell the journey to international waters. So these [boats] will never make it further than that. If they make it to international waters, people are lucky. There’s no fuel. People have no life jackets almost in all cases. The boats are very bad quality — they will never last long in such dangerous seas … There’s no food on board, there’s no water.”

Ponthieu said MSF has observed migrants and refugees in worse physical condition than previous years, having no access to food or water and already displaying signs of weakness. Smugglers are also using rubber boats of poor quality, Ponthieu said, as compared to past years when they used sturdier rubber or wooden fishing boats. In order to avoid detection by authorities, smugglers now launch thousands of boats, each filled with 100-150 people on board. That requires mobilizing several different search and rescue vessels to respond en masse.

“The more obstacles you put on the route, the more dangerous the route gets,” Ponthieu said.

In yet another grim reminder of the severity of the crisis, one day after the U.N. numbers were released came news from MSF that 25 people were found dead at the bottom of a rubber boat. Another 246 people survived and were rescued from that vessel and another nearby.

On Wednesday, MSF announced that the death toll had climbed to 29.

“This is a tragedy, but we can’t say that today is an exceptional day at sea,” Stefano Argenziano, MSF’s manager of migration operations, said in a statement. “Sea rescue operations are becoming a race through a maritime graveyard and our rescue teams are overwhelmed by a policy-made crisis where we feel powerless to stop the loss of life.”

Coming Dec. 27 on FRONTLINE: Exodus — the harrowing stories of Syrians, Afghans and others making the dangerous journey to Europe in search of safety and a better life.

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