A tragedy foretold: death in the Mediterranean

The journeys facing migrants have become more diverse and more dangerous

 

Summer is approaching and with it comes the spectre of mass death in the Mediterranean. Yet again, the improving weather has coincided with a spike in the number of migrants attempting to cross from north Africa to Europe in rubber dinghies and rickety boats. In just two days last week, more than 4,000 people were plucked from makeshift vessels, bringing the total rescued and brought to Italy so far this year to well over 50,000 – a 46 per cent increase on the same period in 2016. They were the lucky ones. Last Wednesday, more than 30 people, mostly toddlers, drowned when about 200 people without life jackets fell from a small boat into the sea off the Libyan coast. In all, more than 1,300 people have died trying to complete the central Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy this year.

Even before they get near a smuggler’s boat, many migrants suffer appalling violence. A recent report by the International Organisation for Migration into north African routes documented the cases of hundreds of young men who were detained by smugglers or militias and taken to “slave markets” to be sold on.

The closure of the western Balkan route as a result of an EU-Turkey deal in March 2016 staunched the flow of people reaching Greece via the eastern Mediterranean and pushed the issue further from the public mind. But all that has changed are the routes. Migrants continue to travel in comparable numbers and from the same countries, only now their journeys have become more diverse and more dangerous, according to the UN refugee agency.

The immediate task facing the authorities on both sides of the Mediterranean is to save as many lives as possible. On this, important work is being done in difficult conditions. The Italian coast guard and Frontex, the EU border agency, along with other states and NGOs, have rescued tens of thousands of people. The Republic continues to make an important contribution; Defence Forces personnel have rescued more than 15,000 migrants since 2015, and last week the LÉ Eithne set sail to assist with the humanitarian mission. Far less impressive has been the European effort to ease the burden on Italy. Some 18,500 asylum seekers have been relocated from Greece and Italy under an EU scheme agreed in 2015 – far short of the 160,000 EU states pledged to make available. Just 6,000 of those asylum seekers have been relocated from Italy.

Yet, vital as they are, rescue operations and relocation cannot address the real causes behind the flow of people from Africa towards Europe. Unless rich states commit serious funding and real coordination to the long-term effort to reduce poverty, solve conflicts and mitigate the effects of climate change in developing countries, many people will continue to take this perilous journey.

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