International Edition: 700 Shipwrecked in Mediterranean, Europe’s Immigration Crisis


Gilberto Flores
National Beat Reporter

Hundreds of would-be migrants are feared dead in the Mediterranean Sea after their 70-foot-long boat capsized about 120 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa on April 19. With only 28 survivors and up to 670 feared drowned, the incident is the largest migrant sea disaster in history. The growing death of migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean points to a larger immigration issue facing Europe and the effects of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

The boat had left Libya and was en route to Italy, carrying migrants who were trying to flee worsening conflicts in North Africa and Syria. Migrants seeking asylum in Europe tend to escape by sea to Lampedusa, Sicily, Greece, or similar locations in Europe.

This incident is only the latest in a series of similar tragedies. Last week, another shipwreck killed about 400 people. These types of shipwrecks are all too common in the Mediterranean and have been going on for years.

In 2014, 220,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, according to European border agency Frontex. Nearly a third of them (about 67,000) were Syrians fleeing the civil war. Many were escaping Eritrea’s brutal dictatorship and Mali’s civil war. Others came from poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa. 4,868 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014, and this year that number stands at 1,600 as of April 19.

Smuggling has become a large industry in Libya ever since the collapse of their government. The boats used are often shoddy and rickety. Some refugees pay about $1000 for the trip across the sea to Europe, while some pay a lesser price and are stuffed down into the engine rooms of old boats. Some reports estimate that one over-packed shipping vessel could bring in revenue of between $4-7 million, depending on the size of the vessel and the number of people aboard.

Even though the migrants were on their way to Italy, many planned on traveling through Italy to seek asylum in northern European countries where the welfare state is much stronger. Italy has a law that says you can’t force someone to get fingerprinted, therefore migrants who arrive there simply pass through to claim asylum in other countries without ever getting on the books in Italy.

While the migration crisis affects the entire European region, not much has been done on their part to help the situation. In fact, some steps have actually made the situation worse.

Until recently, the Italian government had its own search and rescue program, Mare Nostrum (“our sea”). The program was credited with saving thousands who were shipwrecked or lost in Italian waters. However, last fall the European Union border agency Frontex took over with its own program, Triton. The new program spends one seventh of the money Italy did under Mare Nostrum, significantly scaling back the resources available for search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean coast.

This change reflects an idea in European government that if there was less of a chance for migrants to be rescued in the event of a shipwreck, they would be less likely to want to risk the voyage. This thinking is especially prevalent in the United Kingdom, which has announced it would not participate in any rescue operations. But this has not been successful, because more migrants keep trying to enter Europe by sea despite the great risk.

The European Commission—the EU’s executive body—is set to release a comprehensive immigration strategy by next month. The strategy is expected to focus on improving conditions in the migrants’ origin countries and improving border security. In a statement, the European Commission said, “The only way to truly change the reality is to address the situation at its roots. For as long as there is war and hardship in our neighborhood near and far, people will continue to seek a safe haven on European shores.”

It’s difficult to tell whether solving the migration problem “at its roots” would be successful or even possible, considering that there are so many complicated issues involved. To stop smuggling from Libya, the Libyan government would have to be rebuilt and order would have to be established. To keep Syrian migrants from coming, the bloody civil war in Syria would have to end and a lasting peace would need to be created. To keep migrants from sub-Saharan African countries from coming, poverty would need to be solved in sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region on the planet. That’s a tall order.