>Mar 31st 2009
Hundreds of migrants drown in the Mediterranean
IT IS a grim way to die. Packed into ill-equipped and poorly skippered craft, migrants who attempt to cross the Mediterranean from north Africa risk their lives even in the best of conditions. Wooden boats knocked together to hold some 75 people are often crammed with three or four times that number. Migrants report fellow travellers who have been crushed to death or exhausted, dehydrated and seasick, knocked over board and left to drown. When passengers panic or when fights break out the risk of capsize is acute.
When conditions worsen, the risk of death rises sharply. A broken engine, a bewildered navigator or bad weather can hasten the loss of a boat. This week sandstorms struck as several hundred people set forth from Libya on perhaps four boats, apparently attempting to reach the coast of Italy. Libyan officials said on Tuesday March 31st that, having searched for more than two days, they had fished at least 21 corpses from the sea and had found one boat with a broken engine and 350 people aboard. Hundreds of others, including women and children, are thought to have drowned. A spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration suggested that “more than 300 people have disappeared at sea” in this accident alone.
It is unclear precisely how many people die each year trying to cross to Europe from Africa. In February at least 21 migrants from north Africa drowned as their boat capsized near the Canary Islands. In May last year 47 migrants died of starvation and exposure after their boat broke down en route from Libya to Italy.
Many deaths go unrecorded. In some cases entire boats are lost. Only where survivors offer testimony are death tolls known in detail. Among those who attempt to sail from west Africa to the Canary Islands, some are washed into the Atlantic. In one case a boatload of corpses turned up in the Caribbean, apparently a cargo of Africans drifting far off course. A researcher with the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, estimated in 2007 there were 10-20 deaths per thousand migrants who attempted to cross from Africa to Spanish territory. At least 45,000 migrants reached Spanish and Italian territory alone in 2008. Total movement by migrants across the Mediterranean, including those who travel to Greece, Malta and elsewhere, is significantly higher.
Migrants appear to be dying in much greater numbers than they did a decade ago, for a variety of reasons. The amount of migrants attempting to cross from Africa to Europe may be rising. In addition safer and easier routes of old have been closed, such as from Morocco to the Canary Islands, or across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. More effective patrols in some areas by Frontex, the European border agency, are forcing migrants to attempt more arduous routes. Some are reportedly setting off for Europe in craft from as far south as Gambia in west Africa. In the Mediterranean new routes have been opening, for example from Egypt to Turkey and from Turkey to Greek islands.
As European governments strike deals with their counterparts in north Africa, more efforts to crack down on migrants are expected. In some cases, in exchange for aid and other assistance, Frontex conducts joint patrols with African navies. In other cases repatriation is made easier, in an effort to deter migrants from attempting their journey. European governments also encourage the likes of Morocco and Libya to deter the arrival of African migrants in their countries in the first place.
But as crossing the border becomes more difficult and expensive, would-be migrants increasingly rely on the expertise of people-traffickers. Migrants report paying hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars for passage across the Mediterranean, with the traffickers keen to cram as many fee-payers on to a single boat as possible, in order to maximise profits. As the boats and equipment are abandoned on arrival in Europe, the craft are often cheaply built and carry woefully inadequate supplies. Those who command the craft are would-be migrants themselves, often former fisherman with a limited knowledge of navigation. Few on board even know how to swim.
Frontex has had some success in shifting migrants from certain routes across the Mediterranean, but it is unclear how many, if any, are deterred entirely from attempting the crossing. Efforts to educate would-be migrants about the dangers of taking to small boats, for example with a poster campaign in Senegal, have had little impact. Migration researchers report that travellers, typically young men, are either fatalistic (believing that God decides their fate) or are so strongly motivated to find a better life in Europe that the risk to their lives is brushed aside.