Can Europe Make It?

Why are so many people dying in the Mediterranean?

Why are so many people dying in the Mediterranean and what can we do about it?

Jan Völkel
27 January 2016

African migrants arrive in Palermo after a successful rescue mission. Demotix/Antonio Melita. Some rights reserved.2015 was the deadliest year in the Mediterranean Sea ever. According to UNHCR, 3,771 people died or went missing when attempting to cross from one coast to the other, 1,014,836 arrived at the European shores – both numbers mark sad records.

Even 2011, the year of collapsing state authorities in Egypt, Tunisia and especially Libya, and the consequent crumbling of border controls and coast guards institutions in particularly the latter two countries, already perceived as a record year, saw numbers which are nothing compared to the recent entries: some 58,000 arrivals and more than 1,500 deads/missings were recorded back then.

Analysts usually hint at the civil war in Syria that has displaced millions of people internally, to the neighbouring countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and since 2014 increasingly also to Europe. Clearly, the situation in Syria has become a major trigger of the recent record refugee numbers; yet, it is not sufficient to explain why so many people die or go missing on their way to Europe.

There are two main reasons for this: careless behaviour of the smugglers that help refugees to move forward from one spot to another, and rigorous border protection policy of the European Union and its member states that favours security through closed borders over securing safe ways into the EU.

All these patterns have their share in the high numbers of serious incidents that happen at sea and that make the Mediterranean the “deadliest sea” of the whole globe. It is the intention of this article to firstly describe the main reasons why people decide to board on a clandestine boat, and then to propose strategies how the number of victims in the Mediterranean could be immediately reduced. 

Clandestine people are in unsuitable physical and psychological condition

Before reaching the Mediterranean shore in North Africa or the Middle East and embarking on a boat that eventually shall bring them to Europe, refugees and irregular migrants often have a month, if not yearlong odyssey through the Sahel and the Sahara Desert or through the Arabian Desert and the Levant behind them. Often forgotten in public perceptions, those months of deprivation are the first “sea” to cross for migrants, as living conditions are hard, particularly in summer with temperatures of up to 60 degree Celsius, but also in winter when temperatures in the Sahara, which in Arabic is also called “bahr bila ma” (“sea without water”), as well as in the Taurus Mountains can easily reach below zero degree levels.

Dying from thirst is a common phenomenon among people crossing the desert particularly in summer:

“In the hottest part of the desert, an adult sitting in the shade loses up to one litre of water an hour, and significantly more when moving. A person starts to feel thirsty when fluid loss reaches half a percent of his or her weight. At 2 percent or more, physical and mental capacity begins to wane, and starting at 5 percent, he or she experiences dizziness, nausea and muscle cramps, and the skin turns purplish. At 10 percent, disorientation sets in.

At that stage, people are prepared to drink anything: blood, urine, engine coolant or battery acid. In the Sahara, a person can easily die of thirst in a single day”.

Though precise numbers do not exist, estimates of several dozens, if not hundreds of people dying yearly in the Sahara while being on their way even to the Mediterranean coast are highly likely; according to estimates of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “[b]etween 1996 and 2011 at least 1,691 people died while attempting desert journeys”, and the blog Fortress Europe calculated that “at least 1,790 migrants have died in the Sahara between 1996 and 2014”. Besides the scarcity of food and water (often spoiled), malaria and similar sicknesses pose serious threats.

For those who survive this first part of their journey, such trails usually impact massively on their overall physical and psychological state. The World Health Organization lists “accidental injuries, hypothermia, burns, cardiovascular events, pregnancy and delivery-related complications, diabetes and hypertension” as most common health problems of clandestine migrants, with women and children at particular risk of being sexually or psychologically abused in addition. In addition, insufficient nutrition and dehydration are widespread among people crossing the deserted areas of the Middle East and North Africa.

These difficult conditions hit people who already come from very hostile living circumstances. Before leaving their home region, affected people that decide to take on a trip of thousands of unknown kilometres have spent months, if not years in civil wars (Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, Somalis, South Sudanese), political repression (Eritreans) or economic deprivation (the Sahel countries), often with several factors combined.

Even if people found temporary refuge in a refugee camp in Eastern Africa or the Levant, living conditions are often insufficient for proper physical or psychological conditions: violence and crime are widespread in camps packed with (hundreds of) thousands people, and funds are often not enough to provide all camp inhabitants with sufficient rations of food and water, due to unpaid commitments of particularly Western countries for the UN humanitarian agencies.

In 2014, the United Nations recorded a $225 million shortfall for vital food programmes, leading to “unacceptable levels of malnutrition”, particularly among children who suffer from stunting or anaemia.

In addition, people from Africa’s and Asia’s suffering societies in most cases never learnt how to swim. In sum, if boats on the Mediterranean get into distress, people are often weak and also do not know how to survive several hours, if not say days, in high waters with waves that can reach a height of ca. four meters, and in exceptional cases even eight meters, such as the “monster wave” that hit the cruise liner Louis Majesty in the Western Mediterranean north-east of Barcelona on 3 March 2010, killing two of its passengers.

Smugglers do not care about the fate of their "clients"

Crossing the deserted areas and particularly crossing the Mediterranean is hardly possible without the help of professional smuggler gangs. Prices for the overland trip towards the Mediterranean coast and then across the sea are highly flexible and range for the connection from Libya to Italy somewhat between US-$1,500 and US-$2,500, depending on whether the paying refugees want to be put on the boat’s upper deck with water and food provision, or if they have to stay in the lower deck without any sustenance.

Yet, once in the hands of their “service providers”, clandestine migrants have no chance to resist any further exploitation, and promises given at the beginning are quickly broken once smugglers have the chance to squeeze more money out of their entrusted. Stories of additional “fees” taken from refugees during the trip through the desert, blackmailing of family members back home urging them to pay vast sums of money (reportedly up to US-$50,000 per captured person) in case they want to see their son or daughter alive, and of sexual abuse of women and children abound. Smugglers often also leave groups alone in the desert, or selling them to local criminal gangs. Trying to make some money during their journey, local employers also abuse them.

Libya, due to its geographic location and further fuelled by the collapse of state authorities, has become a hotspot for irregular migration towards Europe. Organised smuggler gangs can operate widely uncontrolled here, with local authorities often joining sides in their criminal activities. Here, the situation for migrants is particular horrifying, as a recent Amnesty International report has shown with many horrible examples.

With their bodies and souls strongly abused, refugees and irregular migrants are then brought on boats that usually do not fulfil the minimum safety requirements. Often rather nutshells made from rubber or wood, overloading is a frequent practice in order to maximize profits – in April 2015 for instance, a vessel with more of 800 people sank off the coast of Libya, with reportedly hundreds of them locked in the underwater deck without any chance to escape. Auto-piloted “ghost ships” packed with people but lacking any crew on  board that head through the Mediterranean towards Europe made headlines in early 2015, exposing passengers the risk of splitting on coastal rocks if not stopped before.

During the process of “boarding” the boats (“loading” would be the better word), migrants are usually pushed hard by their smugglers without any mercy for pregnant women or children who are often tossed like potato bags onto the boat that is destined of carrying them across the Mediterranean. The resulting serious injuries many boat people come by further reduce their resistivity in case their boat capsizes and victims have to survive for hours in the sea waters.

Coastal inhabitants also try to make their profit from the migrants and refugees. When the number of Syrian refugees leaving from the Turkish coastline towards Greece increased strongly throughout 2015, business circles in Izmir started to produce fake life vests that they then sold to refugees ready to leave.

The abuse of refugees and mistreatment of irregular migrants does, after all, not end once people have reached Europe, as the sickening death of 71 people in an abandoned refrigerator truck in Austria in August 2015 or the repeated oppression of asylum-seekers in German refugee homes through private security agents, plus many other examples of xenophobic and racist attacks across Europe show.

The restrictive EU immigration policies push people into the sea

The European Union and its member states as prime destination countries have increasingly “securitized” their immigration and border protection policies. Council Directive 2001/51/EC stipulates that transport companies like air carriers or shipping carriers are not allowed to let passengers without valid EU visa embark on a plane or ferry boat that is heading towards the EU; safe and regular ways into the EU, available from €75 for a one way flight Tunis-Paris, are hence only open for travellers with valid documents; refugees and clandestine migrants without visas have to refer to the illegal boats that promise the passage for much higher costs.

The whole EU logic is built on “border protection” against unwanted immigration; billions of euros are invested in sophisticated surveillance technology, patrolling equipment and border guard personnel. This defensive stance leads to occasional misbehaviour of EU coast guards who push migrant boats back into unsafe seawaters or even destroy the boats that then quickly sink.

Similar effects can be observed through the increasingly militarized border patrolling through Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency. Thanks to increased cooperation between the EU and Morocco as well as Tunisia and more effective patrolling activities, former hotspots of Mediterranean migration have been almost completely closed; in contrast to the situation few years ago, only a few refugees arrive in Spain and the Canary Islands nowadays, also movements from Tunisia towards Sicily have sharply dropped.

However, closing the short and easy routes does not mean that irregular immigrants stay in North Africa now, but that they simply embark on longer, and hence more expensive as well as more dangerous routes through the Mediterranean. More casualties are the result.

Finally, the application of international sea laws is still insufficient in the Mediterranean. Stories of fishermen being arrested and sentenced after rescuing migrants in distress and bringing them to safe harbours for “breaking immigration laws” do not encourage private seafarers to engage in future rescue operations. 


If the EU was seriously interested in saving lives of refugees and irregular immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea, it would not send rescue boats in its Triton and Poseidon missions around Italy and Greece – it would open regular channels for people in need to enter safely European territory. This, however, is not a realistic scenario for the time being, given the heated public debate in Europe about immigration and security particularly since the recent Paris attacks of 13 November 2015.

Politicians like François Hollande or David Cameron are too fearful of the loss of votes from anti-immigrant citizens who loudly express their protests in mass demonstrations and online forums; not to speak about the current leaders in Poland, Denmark, Hungary and a number of other European countries.

However, keeping security as predominant goal in its border control leads to paradox results that neither increase security for the EU nor provides immigrants with the necessary protection. Therefore, the thousands of fatal incidents in the Mediterranean and the deserted areas before should trigger a comprehensive recalibration of existing immigration policies. Death numbers will not go down as long as Europe sticks to its restrictive visa and travel policies.

If Europe were to open save channels for refugees and clandestine immigrants, this would also destroy the lucrative business of smuggler groups, as no one would need to pay thousands of dollars to faithless criminals if regular plane tickets would be available for few hundreds of euros to everybody.

This would dry out criminal networks, and strengthen legal businesses in the air and sea transport sector alike. Egypt, for instance, has lost its last ferryboat connection from Alexandria to Europe (Venice) in 2011; wouldn’t it be a great chance to resume frequent connections and hence boost business if refugees and clandestine migrants would not be treated like criminals, but normal passengers?

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