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The Mediterranean – a crossroads of tragedy

15 September 20150 comments

The number of migrants and asylum seekers who have arrived in Europe by sea so far in 2015 is now approaching a quarter of a million, according to an analysis by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

With rescues at sea occurring at a rate of over 1,000 migrants a day this northern summer off Italy and Greece, the number of arrivals has already surpassed the total arrivals in 2014.

Deaths at sea are also at record levels this year. In the last month there have been seven more shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, pushing total fatalities calculated by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project to more than 3000.

On August 5, a fishing boat carrying over 200 migrants capsized off the coast of Libya with an as yet unknown number of drownings. On 11 August, roughly 60 people drowned in the same area when their overcrowded rubber dinghy began deflating in the summer heat. Rescuers saved 54 people, most from sub-Saharan Africa, out of the 120 reportedly on board.

Four days later 49 people were lost when a boat foundered off Libya and on August 18, six were lost off the coast of Turkey.

On August 25, 52 were lost off Libya and two days later over 200 more. Two more boats went down on August 30 and September 1 with the loss of 18 people.

These latest tragedies underscore the dangers faced by migrants in the Channel of Sicily, now the deadliest route for those fleeing violence, natural disasters and abject poverty, the IOM says.

Despite the dangers, some 102,000 migrants crossed the Channel of Sicily from Libya to reach safety in Italy so far this year.

With the latest official Greek government figures reporting 134,988 migrant arrivals from Turkey this year, the total with Italy, Spain and Malta is officially 237,000. With rescues proceeding daily, the IOM forecasts total migrant arrivals will surpass a quarter of a million by the end of this month. This compares with a 2014 total of 219,000.

“The situation in the Mediterranean is deeply concerning,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing.
“Even if lately there have been some important achievements – such as the reinforcement of the EU’s Triton operation – more must be done in order to provide adequate support to desperate people who put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. Too often migrants either perish at sea or en route to departure points,” he said.

Data provided by the Italian Ministry of Interior show that in the first seven months of 2015 – from 1 January to 31 July – Italy registered the arrival of a total of 93,540 people. This is 8 % more than during the same period of 2014, when the Italian authorities recorded 87,915 arrivals.
Eritrea remains the leading country of origin, with 25,567 migrants arriving in Italy from Libya in 2015. Nigeria is a distant second with 11,899 arrivals. Other important sending countries are Somalia (7,538), Sudan (5,658), Syria (5,495), Gambia (4,837) and Bangladesh (3,692).

Syrians arriving this year are about one third of those registered during the same period last year. This reflects the fact that people fleeing from the war in Syria are now mainly reaching Europe via Turkey and Greece. This route is significantly shorter and safer than the Central Mediterranean route via Libya and Italy.

“Flows are changing,” said Federico Soda, Director of the IOM Coordinating Office for the Mediterranean in Rome. “Some nationalities are increasing compared to last year. This is the case with Somalis (from 3,190 to 7,538), Sudanese (from 1,301 to 5,658) and Nigerians (from 4,702 to 11,899.) Others, like the Syrians, are decreasing.”

Migrant flows arriving in Europe, and in particular in Italy, continue to be mixed. Some people are fleeing wars and persecution, others poverty, famine and land degradation. There are also many vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied minors and victims of trafficking and abuse.

“This year we have noticed an increase in the number of women arriving from Nigeria – 2,360 in 2015 compared to 545 at the end of July 2014. This is worrying, as we know from interviewing many of these women that they are often potential victims of trafficking in need of protection. Some have confirmed to us that they were actually sent to Europe to work in the sex industry,” Mr Soda said.

The IOM in Italy has established two anti-trafficking teams in Sicily and Apulia. More are expected to be deployed in the coming months. Their job is to identify victims of exploitation and human trafficking.

“The expected number of arrivals may appear high,” said Mr Swing.

“But it is a number that could be easily absorbed by the European Union (EU), a huge area with over 500 million people. In order to do so, EU member states must cooperate to develop a more coherent and humanitarian approach. At the same time, we must promote, at a public level, an open, balanced and unbiased discourse on the issue of migration flows to Europe, since the public debate on this phenomenon is too often based on emotions, stereotypes, and myths – not on reality,” he said.



Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist