Eleven children die every week on the Central Mediterranean Sea migration route. The number is likely to be higher because many shipwrecks go unrecorded or are left with no survivors.
(UNICEF, July 14th, 2023)
Each year, tens of thousands attempt to escape wars, oppression, and worsening economic conditions in their home countries by embarking on perilous journeys both by land and sea across the Mediterranean. With the exacerbation of political and economic turmoil in the region in recent years, and the desire for a better future, the numbers of immigrants to Europe, specifically European Union countries, have risen. While Ukrainian’s immigration to Europe accounts for a significant portion, surpassing seven million people according to estimates from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) as of July 18th, 2023, the Middle East and North Africa still represent a substantial proportion of asylum seekers to the continent.
Parallel to escalating immigration from the Middle East and North Africa and the displacement within this region, the toll of victims and missing persons continues to rise. The narrowing options for safe and legal immigration to Europe drive immigrants further towards human trafficking networks, thus higher risks for migrants and their families. Among the recent tragic stories is the sinking of an immigrants’ boat off the shores of Greece on June 14th last year. Around 600 people were killed, and dozens went missing when the boat sank. Consequently, investigations and accusations among various involved parties are ongoing, with demands to recover the bodies from the seabed. Following that, another incident led to the death of 41 people, including three children, when a ship carrying immigrants capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian agency "ANSA" reported that only four individuals managed to survive, indicating that the boat had set off from Sfax in Tunisia and overturned and sank within a few hours.
2023: The Bloodiest Year
While the tragedy of the boat sinking off the shores of Greece is one of the worst immigration disasters since 2015, it is just one episode in an ongoing series related to immigration issues. This matter includes the so-called irregular or illegal asylum, immigration policies, asylum system reforms, increased restrictions, and deportations. Furthermore, immigration is especially relevant considering the victories of several far-right parties in various European country elections.
As it is challenging to accurately determine the number of immigrants crossing the sea to Europe, data from the International Organization for Migration indicates that up until August 7th, 2023, 121,391 people had reached Europe by sea. In contrast, the Italian Ministry of Interior reported that the number of migrants arriving in Italy this year reached 93,700 people by August 7th, an increase of over double compared to the same period last year. The year 2022 recorded the highest number of deaths since 2017, totaling 3,789 cases, an 11% increase from 2021, according to the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project. The Middle East and North Africa accounted for more than half of the global deaths recorded by the project. The year 2016 marked the highest death toll at 5,096 people following the closure of the less hazardous route from Turkey to Greece after the migration agreement between Turkey and the European Union in March 2016. This agreement compelled Turkey to take measures to close its land and sea routes to the European Union in exchange for 3 billion euros in aid for 2018 to handle the migrant pressure on its territory. In 2015, 3,770 people died, a 15% increase from 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. The first quarter of 2023, described by the Missing Migrants Project as the deadliest since 2017, recorded 441 migrant deaths on the Central Mediterranean Sea route, considered the world's most dangerous maritime passage by the International Organization for Migration, excluding the victims of the Greek shipwreck in June and subsequent incidents.
The International Organization for Migration speculates that the actual death toll on migration routes within the Middle East and North Africa is much higher due to the scarcity of official data and limited access of civil society and international organizations to overland routes. The organization's Displacement Matrix launched a system in Libya to track incidents reported by primary information sources in remote areas along major migration routes and Libya's borders in late 2021 in an attempt to address data gaps.
The data indicates that most deaths occurred last year on overland routes in Yemen. Among the 867 reported deaths at the African Horn crossing to Yemen, at least 795 people lost their lives, believed to be mostly Ethiopians, on the route between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, especially in Yemen's Saada Governorate on the northern border.
"Manufactured Humanitarian Crisis"
In distressing and painful numbers, UNICEF announced in mid-July 2023 that approximately 11 children die or go missing every week while attempting migration across the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Europe. At least 289 children have lost their lives or gone missing this year. Despite the impossibility of verifying the true number of child casualties and UNICEF's estimation that the actual number is much higher due to unrecorded boat and ship wrecks, the organization estimates that 1 in every 5 people who have died crossing the Mediterranean since 2018 is a child, totaling around 1,500 children out of 8,274 people, according to the Missing Migrants Project.
The increasing loss of lives occurs in the context of the European Union tightening policies against irregular migration. International organizations have criticized delays in rescue responses led by governments, including the International Organization for Migration, which accused some countries of obstructing the work of non-governmental search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. They urged nations to respond, as "delays and gaps in state-led search and rescue result in loss of human life. In this context, UNICEF emphasized the need to enhance efforts to save lives at sea, stressing the necessity of creating safe and legal pathways for children to seek asylum and addressing the underlying causes that compel children to risk their lives in the first place. The International Organization for Migration, from its end, issued a report in 2017 in which it covered four decades of undocumented migration to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. The organization clarified that the closure of shorter and less dangerous routes could lead to the opening of longer and more perilous paths, thereby increasing the likelihood of death at sea.
Furthermore, the organization Doctors Without Borders accused EU member-states at the end of June of fueling the migration crisis on European shores, deeming the situation a "manufactured humanitarian crisis" resulting from the EU's failure to implement appropriate policies and measures. They warned of the "shameful consequences of neglecting the humanitarian duties of EU member states" and called for a comprehensive reevaluation of their policies and the provision of legitimate and safe avenues for seeking asylum in Europe. In mid-July, the organization accused Italian authorities of obstructing humanitarian search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean Sea. It pointed out that five leading non-governmental organizations had submitted a complaint to the European Commission regarding Italian Law No. 2023/15 and the practices of Italian authorities, which allocate distant ports away from the rescue zone for disembarking survivors from humanitarian search and rescue vessels. The comments from Doctors Without Borders came after the announcement by European Union member states at the beginning of June about reaching a new agreement concerning migration.
UNICEF estimated that since the beginning of 2023, around 11,600 children have arrived in Italy from North Africa, averaging 428 children per week, which is double the rate compared to the same period last year. Describing the central Mediterranean route as one of the most dangerous paths taken by children, the organization revealed that 71% of children arriving in Europe through this route are unaccompanied or separated from their families, with a total of 3,300 children in the first three months of the current year.
A Historical Tragedy
Immigration has always played a central role in the history of the Mediterranean. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, most migrants traveled from Europe to Africa and the Middle East in search of better job opportunities or to escape religious persecution. During that time, many European elites were fascinated by Turkish culture, Ottoman attire, music, and architecture. Conversely, Europe did not attract migrants from other continents during this period. During the World Wars, numerous African and Asian immigrants were brought to Europe as soldiers and contracted workers for European armies, while immigration flows from Europe southward continued until the end of World War II in the mid-20th century. However, it began to noticeably shift in the opposite direction.
European colonization of North Africa and the Middle East significantly contributed to enlarging migration waves, as the first influx of poor peasants from North Africa to Europe followed waves of decolonization after World War II and the return of millions of European settlers and individuals of mixed origins to Europe. In the 1970s, European governments needing labor encouraged workers from the southern Mediterranean coast to arrive. During that period, the numbers of irregular maritime journeys began to rise in response to the easing of visa requirements for certain groups. Cross-border mobility and immigration were further influenced by rapid economic, cultural, and technological globalization, as well as multidimensional economic and social crises in immigrant-sending countries. According to the aforementioned International Organization for Migration report, over 2.5 million migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Europe through unauthorized means from the 1970s until 2017.
In the beginning, irregular migration increased amid an economic crisis caused by a fourfold increase in oil prices during the months following the Arab-Israeli War in October, 1973. For the first time since World War II, unemployment hit industrialized countries. In response, countries like Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and others suspended bilateral agreements regulating the movement of migrant workers from North Africa and Turkey. This led seasonal migrant workers in Europe to decide not to return to their home countries, instead bringing their wives and children who were eligible under European family reunification laws. Secondly, there was a continuation of labor migration across the Mediterranean, albeit irregularly. Consequently, labor-smuggling operations began to thrive.
As the International Organization for Migration described Europe's Mediterranean borders as the deadliest in the world, it pointed out that between 2000 and June 30, 2017, 33,761 people were reported killed or missing during their Mediterranean sea journeys. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2010, irregular migration to Europe via the Mediterranean has increased, with Tunisia and Libya becoming departure points for smuggled immigrants to Italy. The data on irregular migration is of course limited and the report states that this phenomenon is inherently difficult to measure. Additionally, the number of unregistered immigrants is necessarily lower than the total number of irregular sea crossings because only apprehended immigrants are accounted for. Deaths are not directly recorded unless the bodies are found.
Numerous issues and complexities arise from the migrant crisis, its motivations, and the tragedy involving children. The report questions the differentiation between refugees (political asylum) and migrants (economic migration) in the context of Mediterranean migration, suggesting that those risking their lives in fragile boats across the Mediterranean have inherent reasons rooted in poor conditions in their home countries. This leads to a discussion of how "illegitimacy" is produced through definitions of legitimacy and law enforcement, applicable to migration like any other phenomenon. Lastly, a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2006 raises crucial questions regarding the application of global justice when governments respond to unprecedented levels of global migration.
In conclusion, migration does not happen in a vacuum. Studying this complex phenomenon cannot occur in isolation from the surrounding context, the conditions that push for it and the ways they are dealt with. Immigration trends are not fixed but are influenced by historical circumstances (such as the impact of colonization on migration patterns in the Mediterranean), economic, social, political, and climate conditions in both migrant-sending and receiving countries. Therefore, addressing the consequences of illegal migration by enforcing specific policies without delving into their causes and penalizing their exploiters unjustly harms hundreds of thousands of citizens, families, and children. This issue extends beyond the Mediterranean basin to encompass all migration waves from geographical areas experiencing poverty, deprivation, conflicts, and wars to places that may offer better livelihood opportunities.