Where they come from: The Middle Eastern migrants of the Med
The International Organisation for Migration says that 22,000 migrants have died since the year 2000
Migrants arriving at Porto Empedocle in Sicily after being rescued approx 40km off the Libyian coast by a Dutch freighter the Dinteldijk. Photograph: Frank Miller
The lure of sanctuary drives desperate Syrians, Syrian-Palestinians and Libyans to risk overland smuggling networks and sea passages on rickety fishing vessels to reach Europe, despite an uncertain future there.
The International Organisation for Migration says that 22,000 migrants have died since the year 2000, among hundreds of thousands who have attempted journeys to Europe, mainly across the Mediterranean. They seek to escape unending war, sectarian conflict, poverty, persecution, and the rise of al-Qaeda-linked or -inspired militias.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Syria is the homeland of by far the largest number of migrants seeking asylum in industrialised countries. During the first half of 2014, 48,400 Syrians applied, followed by Iraq (21,300) and Afghanistan (19,300).
Nearly half of Syria’s 23 million people have been displaced within Syria or fled the country; the International Organisation for Migration gives the net migration rate for Libya as 7.7 per thousand in a population of 6.2 million. Libyans rank low on the asylum seekers table, although Libya is the main transit country for African migration to Europe.
In the 38 EU member countries, there were 264,000 asylum claims in the first half of 2014, the largest number in Germany (65,700). Italy, a key transit area, came sixth, with 24,500 applications.
Many asylum seekers are driven to risk the smuggling routes by the myths of an easy passage and certain acceptance. Jamil, a young Palestinian living in Damascus, believed in this myth before he, his mother, Amira, and sisters, Dania, an architect, and Lamia, a student, left Syria, braving a 16-hour bus journey along roads infested with army, rebel, Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra checkpoints.
Kidnap, rape and trafficking are constant dangers in Syria’s north and along smuggling routes. Jamil renounced a place and scholarship at a European university and revealed their departure in an email sent just two hours before they boarded the bus last month. “I gave up my dream. I cannot let my mother and sisters go alone,” he wrote.
In December 2012 they were driven from their home in the Yarmouk quarter of Damascus, originally a camp for Palestinians expelled from their homeland during Israel’s 1948 war of establishment. At first they settled in a three-bedroom flat in central Damascus but then moved to a hotel in the Christian quarter of the Old City, under constant attack by insurgents.
His father, a former estate agent, decided to stay behind. Once in Turkey, the rest of the family went to Izmir to await instructions from smugglers about a boat to Greece. “When we get to Greece we will fly to Athens and from there to Holland or Germany,” wrote Jamil, confident their contact would get them to one or other of these destinations.
From Izmir they took a boat that sank two weeks ago; they were rescued by the Turkish coastguard, safe but trapped. Now, with money dwindling, they risk arrest if they return to Syria.