The number of migrants who died or disappeared in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe hit record levels in 2016. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there were nearly 4,700 victims.
Yanet Llanes Alemán
This figure makes 2016 the deadliest year for this maritime route since records began, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Around 1,100 more deaths were recorded over the period than in 2015, despite the fact that the total number of people travelling to Europe fell between 2015 and 2016.
“This is by far the worst situation we have seen in the Mediterranean (…) We can say that the percentage of fatalities has increased by a third,” notes William Spindler, a spokesperson for the UNHCR.
Forced from their homes by the never-ending tragedies of war and famine, thousands of migrants and refugees are taking to the seas to reach Europe, with growing numbers taking the Central Mediterranean route from the coast of Africa to that of Italy. The majority of those travelling come from nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
“This is not an invasion of immigrants. What’s happening in the Mediterranean is a humanitarian crisis,” said Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
According to recent IOM figures, 350,573 migrants have crossed the sea so far this year, versus 1,015,78 in 2015.
Recent UNHCR reports have stated that, while one person died for every 269 people who reached the European coast last year, this has now increased to one in 88.
“This is really a calamity in plain sight (…) We are seeing really tragic scenes of rubber rafts going under the seas in the middle of winter in the Mediterranean,” said IOM spokesperson Leonard Doyle.
The route between Africa – particularly Libya – and Italy is considered to be the most dangerous and deadly, since around 90% of the deaths recorded in the Mediterranean were on this route.
Accounts from survivors reveal the tragic crossing during which entire families were lost while fleeing their homelands, which perhaps they never wanted to leave in the first place, including hundreds of unaccompanied children.
Human traffickers are taking advantage of the desperation of refugees from the Middle East and countries in Asia and Africa; they overfill boats that are not seaworthy for their own personal gain.
Moreover, they often attempt the crossing in poor weather conditions, with little thought to the lives they are putting at risk.
To date, the majority of arrivals have been recorded on the Greek and Italian coasts, which have received 173,188 and 171,751 migrants, respectively.
The Italian interior ministry recently announced a 15% increase compared with last year.
Arrivals on Greek soil have reduced dramatically since the first quarter of 2016, when a controversial agreement was signed between the European Union and Turkey to limit the wave of migrants seeking refuge on the so-called “Old Continent”.
In March, the EU agreed to pay Turkey three billion euro between this year and 2017 to help almost three million people; most of these are Syrians who have entered the neighbouring country after being displaced as a result of the war in their homeland.
In exchange, Ankara agreed to reabsorb migrants who arrived in Greece illegally and were denied asylum. For every person who returned, the EU would accept a Syrian refugee living on Turkish soil
Conversely, official figures suggest that 66,000 migrants have been detained in Greece. This is due in large part to the fact that the Balkan route was closed in March, when Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary, among other nations, closed their borders to deny access to thousands of people who were left stranded and without protection.
As one of the EU countries most affected by the migratory crisis, Greece has criticised other members of the block for their lack of cooperation in terms of sharing the burden of refugees in an even manner.
According to EU sources, the block has only resettled 7% of all migrants covered by a distribution plan signed in September 2015, according to which the 28-member club would accept 160,000 migrants from Italy and Greece over a two-year period.
The response of the EU in the Mediterranean has been limited to declaring war on human traffickers and it has been focused around adopting measures to dissuade people and externalise borders rather than to allow safe passage to Europe, stated the non-governmental organisation Doctors Without Borders. The Italian prime minister warned that the problem could only be solved when tackled at the source, with greater assistance for development and security in migrants’ countries of origin and those that they pass through.
Photos: Pixabay – (Translated by Rosalyn Harvey)