Can Europe Make It?

Migrant and refugee suffering on the central Mediterranean route: too much, too long

Despite the world’s media focus on the eastern Mediterranean route in the past year due to the high number of arrivals, the central Mediterranean remains the deadliest route into Europe.

Eliza Galos
18 August 2016
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Red Crescent workers inspect a body washed ashore east of Tripoli,Libya, October,2015. IOM said more than 2,600 migrants had died on central Mediterranean route by then that year.Mohamed Ben Khalifa /Press Association. All rights reserved.Recent survey findings from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reinforce what numerous studies and media reports suggested over the past years: most migrants taking the central Mediterranean route into Europe are vulnerable to extreme exploitation.

The survey conducted with migrants and refugees who arrive in Italy monitors the experiences that indicate the presence of human trafficking and other exploitative practices, finding that 76% of respondents have answered positively to at least one indicator (out of five indicators for individual experiences). More than half of the migrants and refugees interviewed (54%) responded positively to at least 2 out of 5 indicators of human trafficking and exploitative practices. The survey was based on a sample of 1,346 migrants and refugees.

Reports about the suffering of people coming to Europe on this migration route are nothing new. The unsafe passage through Libya to Italy, for sub-Saharans migrants in particular, is also well-known. Data collected from smaller samples show slavery-like experiences reported by migrants. MHub, the inter-agency public platform, found that 90% of migrants that arrived in Italy on this route have experienced between three and nine different kinds of abuses on their journey. The MHub survey consists of a small sample of 122 migrants. A recent photo essay from Oxfam describes the challenges for migrants, and individual stories refer to insecurities and vulnerabilities experienced both on their way to Italy and after arrival.

This IOM survey is one of the few quantitative studies that is rigorous enough to show that a very large proportion of migrants arriving in Italy have already been affected by what could amount to exploitation and even human trafficking. Rigorous because it is based on a relatively large sample of migrants passing through arrival hotspots in Sicily. The survey shows a high percentage of migrants who indicated that they suffered from experiences that can be placed on the whole spectrum of exploitation: from forced labour (47%) to being held against one’s will (over 50%), the latter including instances of kidnapping and detention by other entities than the state authorities. Torture was also reported. Most of the experiences mentioned happened in Libya, a country affected by instability that does not offer any guarantees of human rights protection.

The central Mediterranean is one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world – if not the most dangerous. Despite the world’s media focus on the eastern Mediterranean route in the past year due to the high number of arrivals, the central Mediterranean remains the deadliest route into Europe. Only in 2016, there have been 2,717 deaths up until August 12, in the attempt to cross the sea towards Italy; the number of fatalities is about seven times higher than in the eastern Mediterranean.

Those who make it to Europe are almost all clearly very vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and human trafficking on this route. Furthermore, migrants remain vulnerable after they arrive in Europe.  For example, it is estimated that about 80% of the Nigerian women who arrive in Italy are trafficked. They are directly taken by traffickers from Italian reception centers where migrants arriving on the boats are placed, and then forced into prostitution. In 2006, L’Espresso investigated and reported the abuses of migrants working in agriculture in the south of Italy. Ten years later, investigations of other journalists reveal that the abuses of migrants continue, in the same regions and industries.

No easy answers

There is no easy answer to changing the current circumstances of migrants taking the central Mediterranean route. Poverty and insecurity in most of the countries of origin remain important push factors. Therefore, more investment in coherent development policies in countries of origin, with options for employment and education, or legal migration in other, safer countries in Africa, Europe and beyond are parts of the solution.

On the rest of the migration route, a human rights-based approach can improve the protection of migrants.  A common approach of origin, transit and destination countries in relation to the management of migration on this route would be ideal. The challenge is, however, that the migration journey on the central Mediterranean route is long, and takes migrants through many transit countries which have different capacities to respond to the challenges implicit in complex migrant flows. Undoubtedly, there is a need for investing in an increased capacity for organisations that undertake protection and information activities on the migration route – from Niger to Libya and Italy.  For example, increased capacity of countries in the region for search and rescue operations for protection at sea need the support of the international community.

In particular, there is a need for more support, protection and options for migrants that choose Libya as a country of transit or destination. The safety and security concerns of migrants who get to Libya effectively push them towards Italy. New Mhub research shows that 80% of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in Italy after taking the central Mediterranean route had not planned to go to Italy. However, humanitarian repatriation of vulnerable migrants from Libya, while necessary, is not enough. Voluntary return programs can play an important role in the protection of migrants that wish to return to their country of origin. Moreover, a legal option to move to neighboring countries would help alleviate the suffering of those trapped in a long, insecure and exploitative transit stage.

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