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‘Better to die for something than live for nothing’: the crisis of Mediterranean crossings

More than 1,700 migrants have died so far this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean, creating a crisis for European officials. 

Armed Forces of Malta soldiers carry coffins with the bodies of migrants to an inter-faith burial service.
REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

This is what it’s like to put your life in the hands of a smuggler for the perilous Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Italy.

Your impoverished family scrapes together hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for your passage. You travel for months from Syria or across the Sahara from the Horn of Africa or the Sahel. If you survive that, you may be held by smugglers until your family can come up with more cash — or by authorities in a filthy detention facility until you can get away.

Finally, the smugglers herd you at gunpoint onto a boat. You are likely to be locked in a hold or crammed so tightly onto the deck that there is no place to sit. You might have water for the three or four days the journey takes, but probably no food.

Why do you take the risk?

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Because, according to one former trafficker, it seems “better to die for something than to live for nothing.” 

Or, in the words of one of those fleeing repression, “If I die at sea, it won’t be a problem – at least I won’t be tortured.” 

When the rickety boats go down, the panicked cell phone calls go out to the few numbers migrants have. And the rescue efforts start.

More than 1,700 people have died so far this year, more than a thousand of them this month in two incidents on consecutive Sundays. Those recent deaths — including an estimated 800 from a single ship on Sunday — have created a crisis for European officials, who held an emergency meeting about it on Thursday.

The European Union is handicapped by the sheer size of the problem, and competing priorities among its 28 members. It’s an urgent issue for overwhelmed “frontline” countries such as Italy; not so much for others.  Some emphasize the needs of people fleeing violence, oppression and poverty. Others, mindful of the continent’s weak economy, the problems integrating previous waves of arrivals and widespread anti-immigrant sentiment, put the focus on border security.

No one is satisfied. When Italy complained about the cost of mounting its own rescue mission, it was replaced late last year by a far more modest EU operation that has proven unable to either stop the flow of migrants or rescue those who get in trouble. The EU officials meeting Thursday agreed to triple funding for the patrols, and said they could start seizing smugglers’ boats.

European officials can indeed put on more patrols and start going after the traffickers’ increasingly sophisticated operations. But you can’t build a wall across the Mediterranean. Dissuading people from trying will be a long process, and only partially successful at best. What we’re witnessing is a dramatic worsening of what is actually a chronic problem. 

The numbers are too big now, the migrants too desperate, and the smuggling routes too flexible for Europe to simply shut it down.

Look at the data in this BBC primer.  The numbers skyrocketed last year. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have taken the vast majority of Syrian refugees, but there are thousands more willing to take a chance on reaching Europe. In addition, with the rise of the Islamic State extremist group, Iraq once again has descended into war.

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Depending on circumstances, the best route might be through Greece, Spain or Italy. Libya, the gateway to Italy, is currently the most popular route. It is in chaos and unable to stop the traffic aimed at the islands south of Italy’s boot.

Aside from well-known conflict zones, there are separate streams of people from less obvious sources – West African countries such as Mali, Senegal, Ghana or Gambia, or repressive Eritrea. European officials must decide who is eligible for refugee status because they are fleeing violence and political oppression, and who is on the move primarily for economic opportunity. Aid agencies say they have seen an increase in unaccompanied children.

It takes a long time for the bureaucracy to issue a ruling, and there is a right of appeal. In the meantime, there opportunities to simply slip away and move from one country to the next across EU countries’ open borders. Germany is the most popular destination.

Even European officials didn’t sound particularly convinced that what the EU did on Thursday would amount to much. They will have to keep at it for a long time. The success of their policies is also dependent on something only marginally under their control – political currents roiling the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. For now, it’s hard to imagine that it would make much of an impression on the flood of migrants.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that if the amount of money dedicated to the problem isn’t enough, officials would have to revisit it.

For former Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino, it’s not a matter of coming back to the issue later, but doing something now. She said she was deeply disappointed in the EU’s actions Thursday.

“It’s a wasted opportunity with a lot of fanfare,” she said, “but no concrete result.”