The Mediterranean: a Sea of Migrants in Danger Massimo Sestini/eyevine
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers risk their lives every year to reach Europe.

The majority of migrant border-related deaths since January have occurred in the Mediterranean sea. According to estimates by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 3,072 people have died since the beginning of the year trying to reach European territory by crossing the Mediterranean. This figure represents 75% of the total migration-related deaths in the world this year.

According to the IOM’s report Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration published last month, 22,394 people died in migratory routes to Europe from 1996 to 2014. However, IOM believes the number of casualties may be even higher than stated in the report.

A year ago, on 3 October 2013, Lampedusa hit the headlines when 360 people died while trying to reach European territory after a boat with more than 500 migrants on board sank near the Italian island. This was neither the first nor the last incident involving migrants to happen in the Mediterranean sea. Since 2011, in the wake of the Arab democratic uprisings that started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya and Syria, an increasing number of people have been risking their lives in decaying vessels to enter Europe.  

Uprisings and conflict prompt irregular immigration because they cause instability and diminish surveillance on the borders. People usually pay smugglers to take them to European shores. They want to escape conflict and war but also poverty or political persecution. Not all of them are nationals of countries in conflict, but they seek to take advantage of turmoil to cross borders.

The civil war in Syria had a strong impact on the amount of people trying to come to Europe. Syrian nationals were in 2014 among the majority of migrants attempting to reach European countries using the Central Mediterranean route, the Apulia and Calabria route, the Eastern Mediterranean route and the Western Balkan route, according to data from the European Union agency Frontex. About 21,000 Syrians are believed to have used one of these routes from January to June this year.

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The Italian island of Lampedusa has been one of the main European arrival points. The local reception centre for migrants is overcrowded. Some of the migrants arriving on the island are refugees seeking asylum. Eritreans, for example, face a dangerous journey to get to Europe in order to escape compulsory military service and the dictatorial regime. This year alone almost 18,000 Eritreans used the Central Mediterranean migratory route that took them from Northern Africa towards Italy and Malta through the Mediterranean sea.

European Union’s response

The focus of the EU’s reaction to irregular migration in the Mediterranean has been on the enhancement of borders surveillance, the return of irregular migrants to their countries of origin, and providing assistance to member states facing more difficulties dealing with migratory movements through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.

Frontex is the EU’s agency responsible for assisting the member states with the external borders surveillance. Its primary purposes are to provide technical and operational assistance, to perform risk analysis and to support member states with the migrants return to their home countries. In order to improve management of the EU external borders, Frontex developed the information-exchange system Eurosur in close cooperation with member states. 

The Directive 2008/115/EC establishes common standards and procedures for the return of illegally staying third-country nationals to their countries of origin. The return of the migrants must comply with human rights standards. The reasoning behind the directive is that member states should either return irregular migrants or grant them legal status. In order to achieve a successful return of the migrants, the EU establishes readmission agreements with non-EU countries.

Through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), which was set up for the period 2014-2020, the EU supports financially the member states facing more migration and asylum flows. Moreover, AMIF aims to promote the development of a common EU approach to asylum and immigration.

Does the EU need to adopt a new immigration approach?

Amnesty International (AI) criticised the EU’s immigration strategy. On a press release published last July, the organisation stated that “in their determination to seal off their borders, the European Union and its member states are putting the lives and rights of refugees and migrants at risk”.EU migration policies and border control practices are preventing refugees from accessing asylum in the EU and putting their lives at risk in the course of increasingly perilous journeys”, AI said. The organisation also accused the EU of “funding neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Morocco and Libya, to create a buffer zone around the EU in an effort to stop migrants and refugees before they even reach Europe’s borders”.

The intent to cooperate with Mediterranean neighbour countries in relation to the enhancement of border management goes back to the foundation of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The ENP’s strategy paper published by the European Commission in 2004 highlights the importance of improving border management, cooperating in the fight against illegal immigration and in the effective control of borders. The ENP’s main aim is however to promote sustainable democracy and economic development.  

On 3 October 2014 the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, gave a speech in Lampedusa during the anniversary of the tragedy that killed 360 migrants. He said that “some things are not right with our asylum and migration policies”. In order to improve the European asylum and migration policy, he considers that there should be “more legal avenues to get to the EU” so people do not have to face a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. As irregular immigration hinders the identification of true refugees and asylum seekers, Martin Schulz believes that “we should examine ways of giving people the possibility to ask for asylum or protection outside the EU”.

Changes in the migration policy are however dependent on the will of member states’ governments. The rising of anti-immigration parties in the EU will make changes difficult to achieve. 

Edited by: Andreea Anastasiu