On the 3rd October 2013, a boat carrying over 500 migrants from Libya to Italy sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. 10 years later, crossing the Mediterranean remains one of the most deadly migration routes for those seeking safety abroad. On the 14th June 2023, a fishing trawler carrying 750 people sank, resulting in almost 600 deaths. Since 2014, 28,000 people have died or gone missing whilst trying to cross the Mediterranean; in 2023 alone, there have been over 2,500 casualties.
Crossing the Mediterranean, often in extremely overcrowded boats, is a particularly dangerous route for those seeking safety in Southern Europe due to the length of the journey, limited search and rescue capacity, restrictions on the work of humanitarian NGOs and dangerous smuggling patterns. Along with the recorded tragedies, it is likely that many shipwrecks in the Mediterranean go unnoticed as boats disappear with no survivors or records of their journey. In addition to the dangers at sea, the journey many people make to reach departure points in Tunisia and Libya is also dangerous as people move through countries faced with conflict and insecurity.
Given the risks of crossing the Mediterranean, one may wonder why anyone would attempt to make this journey. According to UN figures, between January-September 2023, 186,000 people arrived in Southern Europe after taking this route. The majority crossed from Tunisia and Libya, with most landing in Italy and others in Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Malta. The most common countries of origin of those making the journey included Syria, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Egypt, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia and Iraq. These are people fleeing their homes as a result of ethnic and civil conflict, political instability, persecution and extreme poverty. It is not an easy decision to leave one’s home, but remaining in their current context carries so much risk that taking a dangerous journey with the possibility of finding safety elsewhere is sometimes the best option. As Somali-British poet Warsan Shire wrote, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”; “no one puts their child on a boat unless the water is safer than the land”.
Forced migration will not stop until the root causes of it stop. As long as conflict, violence, extreme poverty, terrorism and climate-related disasters continue, people will flee across borders seeking safety. As long as there remains an absence of safe and ‘legal’ routes to Europe, people will continue to risk their lives at sea in the hopes of rebuilding their lives abroad.
Tragedies like that of October 2013 and June 2023 are preventable, but they have become normalised. On the decade anniversary of the 2013 sinking, the UN has called for the establishment of coordinated search and rescue operations; an end to the criminalisation or obstruction of those providing humanitarian assistance; and increased efforts to counter trafficking and exploitation. The 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees aimed to coordinate such efforts, as did the International Migration Review Forum in May 2022, however the calls for action and pledges set out must be implemented. There is a need to understand the root causes of forced migration and the challenges faced by migrants, drawing on the views and experiences of those with lived experience, states, humanitarian actors and civil society in order to develop holistic and effective measures to protect the rights of displaced people. This requires the international community to make and follow through with commitments to establish and implement concrete frameworks for migration governance, the safeguarding of migrants, and responsibility sharing.
9th November 2023