As migration routes shift, Mediterranean migrant deaths soar

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It’s a surreal sight that’s become all too familiar in Sicily: warships with international flags, their uniformed crew in white hazmat suits, their passengers crouching shoulder-to-shoulder under army green netting, waiting to be processed. Those migrants are the lucky ones.

The last week of May marked the deadliest in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, with more than 1,100 migrants estimated to have died or gone missing in at least nine separate incidents. This occurred as migrant routes shifted to avoid tougher border controls.

Valeria Calandra, Italian director of the citizen-run rescue organisation SOS Méditerranée, told Equal Times she believes even these shocking numbers are often underestimated because of the difficulty in collecting reliable data outside of international waters.

“We cannot do anything for them until they reach the international borderline,” Calandra said. “Sometimes I wonder how many rubber boats are lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean.”

After the effective closure of borders through the Balkans and central Europe and the EU-Ankara agreement to return all migrants in Greece to Turkey, the number of people arriving to Greek shores has decreased by more than 80 per cent.

International eyes have since turned to the sea routes from Libya and Egypt, which now functions as the main path for asylum-seekers heading for Europe. According to Flavio di Giacomo, spokesperson in Rome for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), signs have emerged signalling the emergence of another route from Egypt.

While boats filled with migrants have departed from the Egyptian coast for years, there has been a clear increase in the proportion of arrivals from Egypt this year. IOM reports that 10 times more migrants arrived from Egypt in the first four months of this year compared to the same period in 2015.

“Entirely unpredictable”

Despite this trend, di Giacomo told Equal Times the extreme complexity behind the development of these routes makes them nearly impossible to predict.

“This time last year, nobody could have guessed that one million refugees would cross the Aegean from Turkey,” Di Giacomo said, referring to the spike in migration of mostly Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees to Europe in June 2015. “These flows are entirely unpredictable.”

Sara Tesorieri, a Brussels-based EU migration policy advisor for Oxfam International, agreed that while routes may change quickly and frequently, the overall migratory flow remains constant. While it is too early to determine the emergence of a new route, Tesorieri cited anecdotal evidence that the closure of the Balkan route has triggered an increase in the number of people being smuggled or trafficked across European borders.

“These routes have just gone underground, making it difficult to ascertain if migrants and refugees are giving up or simply turning to more dangerous, hidden routes,” Tesorieri said. “When migrants turn to smugglers instead of following official pathways or systems, they expose themselves to even more vulnerabilities.”

She agreed that predictions of route changes are impossible to make accurately but she confirmed that organisations like Oxfam are preparing for the formation of new routes this summer.

“What’s clear from the past years is that the patterns are extremely volatile: the route changes quite a bit,” Tesorieri said. “What doesn’t change is the overall migratory flow. The push factors and pull factors don’t shift, and the reality is that people continue to come.”

While the Mediterranean routes share a destination, the journey from Egypt is markedly different than the trip from Libya. Tesorieri said the Libyan route may be more heavily trafficked because smugglers essentially run the coast with impunity in Libya, benefiting from a crumbling government and general lawlessness.

It’s a sharp contrast to the situation in Egypt, where the government and authorities keep a closer eye on irregular migration, partly to maintain their relationships with Western countries.

Objective: international waters

Rubber dinghies departing from Libya, often packed to nearly double their capacity, aim for international waters some 15 kilometres off the coast of Libya. If they manage to cross the boundary line, they send an SOS signal so the rescue boats patrolling the sea can reach them.

In addition to this dangerous journey, advocacy groups have documented an appalling level of abuse and trauma amongst the cohort arriving in Italy from Libya.

A Human Rights Watch report documenting abuses in Libyan detention centres found detainees being beaten with iron rods, sticks and rifle butts, and flogged by guards with cables, hose pipes, and rubber whips made of car tyres and plastic tubes, sometimes over prolonged periods of time.

“In one centre five detainees said guards suspended them upside down from a tree and then whipped them,” Judith Sunderland, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, wrote recently.

“As recently as May 2015, migrants and asylum seekers I interviewed spoke of living in fear in Libya and recounted being robbed, beaten, and extorted by employers, common criminals, security forces and militias,” she wrote.

Di Giacomo suggested a large proportion of African migrants don’t leave their countries with the goal of reaching Europe, but are coerced by smugglers after they begin their journey. After passing through the hands of multiple smugglers, they may feel they have run out of options.

A group of Irish navy men working in the Mediterranean last week corroborated this concept. They told Equal Times about a man on board who arrived to their ship with such severe burns down one side of his body he required immediate transfer to another ship with better medical facilities.

“It was the kind of injury that couldn’t have possibly happened on the water,” one navy man said. Although they did not have any more information on his condition or circumstances, they knew the man had departed from Libya.

“We estimate that 70 to 80 per cent of the migrants don’t want to come to Europe, but they become so vulnerable in Libya they decide they cannot stay,” di Giacomo said. “So they take the boat to Europe.”

Experts say migrants departing from Egypt experience less risk, but must survive a much longer journey which sometimes lasts more than 10 days. Their journey involves multiple transfers between wooden fishing boats and smaller dinghies, meaning they spend less time total in unseaworthy rubber boats.

Earlier in May, about 31,000 migrants had reached the country via these sea routes, slightly less than 2015 levels. The number of new arrivals has picked up recently, possibly due to improved weather conditions.

The Mediterranean route currently accounts for nearly 90 per cent of recorded migrant deaths around the world so far this year. The shift to riskier routes could make the journey even deadlier.