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Migrant Deaths in the Mediterranean: The Broader Picture

migrants crossing the Mediterranean
Migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2016 approached by the US Navy. Credit: US Navy / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The sinking of a boat carrying hundreds of migrants in the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday has again brought the issue of migrant crossings to the forefront of international news.

79 of the migrants are believed to have died in the incident, whereas 104 passengers were saved, although the search continues.

Hundreds and thousands of migrants and refugees attempt to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe every year. The seaborne journey is fraught with danger and the migrants often make the journey on vessels which are far from sea-worthy. Many of those who attempt to cross the sea do not make it.

The death toll for migrants crossing the Mediterranean is rising

According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, although the total number of migrants who embark upon the dangerous journey has fallen since the peak in 2015, the number of those who are killed during the endeavor has in fact risen.

“[In 2021], some 3,231 were recorded as dead or missing at sea in the Mediterranean and the northwest African routes, with 1,881 in 2020, 1,510 in 2019, and more than 2,277 for 2018,” reported the UNHCR.

For Greece, which is situated at the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, the migrant crossing issue has posed difficult questions. Certain islands like Evros have had to deal with large numbers of migrants attempting to gain access to Europe.

Deadly incidents

The recent incident on Wednesday has again brought the migrant crossing issue into sharp focus, but it is not the first scenario in which a large number of people attempting to traverse the Mediterranean have been killed.

Earlier this year, on June 27, over 94 migrants were killed when their boat sank whilst attempting to land on the coast of Steccato di Cutro, a seaside resort village close to the town of Crotone, in the region of Calabria in southern Italy. At least 35 children were among the dead.

Examples of such incidents have occurred since 2015. For example, on November 3, 2016, two incidents of migrant boats capsizing occurred near the shores of Libya, resulting in the loss of approximately 240 lives. The first wreck claimed about 120 lives, while 29 individuals managed to survive. Similarly, in the second wreck, only two people survived, and once again, around 120 fatalities were reported.

That same month, on November 17, another incident took place in which approximately a hundred people are believed to have drowned after being abandoned without a motor off the coast of Libya. 27 survivors were later transported to Italy.

Causes and consequences

The migrants and refugees who attempt to cross the Mediterranean every year leave their homes predominantly across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia for a myriad of reasons.

Some are driven by economic motivations, whereas others are compelled to leave by war and oppression. In Europe, where the issue has become highly politicized, the distinction between “economic migrant” and “refugee” is often an important point of debate.

The cause of the initial migrant crisis in 2015 was largely attributed to a number of interconnected conflicts; chiefly, the Libyan Civil War, the Syrian Civil War, and the Iraq War of 2014-2017. However, a broad range of other social, economic, and political reasons have been explored for the consistently high numbers of migrants and refugees who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean since the period of “crisis” started and ended between 2015 and 2016.

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