PHILADELPHIA — Earlier this week the Italian coast guard rescued several thousand migrants from a sinking vessel attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. Several hundred others were rescued last week, but several hundred more are thought to have perished. These are just the latest incidents highlighting the dangers for immigrants attempting to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, which has become one of the world’s most dangerous journeys and is being called a humanitarian crisis.
In the Western Hemisphere, hundreds of thousands of people make the dangerous journey to enter the U.S. through Mexico or the Caribbean. In Europe, the Mediterranean is the main point of entry. The migrants come from the Middle East, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. They come for the same reasons as their U.S. counterparts, to find work and escape poverty and violence in their home countries.
In the past few years, the number of migrants making the journey has skyrocketed as a result of rising levels of violence and terrorism, particularly in Syria and Libya. The Mediterranean Sea is now considered the world’s deadliest migrant crossing, with an estimated 3,500 migrants killed in 2014. This is more than ten times the number killed along the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 200,000 more were picked up by European authorities.
Migrants pay smugglers to help them make the journey. The smugglers cram them into overloaded, unsafe vessels, many of which sink during the crossing. The smugglers frequently abuse the migrants, robbing many of their possessions during the journey. Last fall, several hundred drowned on a vessel that smugglers deliberately rammed and sunk. Migrants also take serious risks sneaking aboard ferries and cargo ships. The Norman Atlantic Ferry that caught fire while traveling between Greece and Italy this past December was carrying a large number of migrant stowaways.
Italy has become the key point of entry for immigrants crossing from Libya and Tunisia. Greece is another important entry point for migrants traveling through Turkey. Most use these countries as transit points on the way to more prosperous countries in northern Europe.
Italy’s resources have been stretched past capacity as the country struggles to cope with the problem. For about a year the Italian coast guard conducted patrols to search for migrant vessels and rescue passengers, but the program was cut in the fall due to a lack of funds. The Italian government has many shelters along the coast to house and process the migrants, but these are severely overcrowded and understaffed. Under EU law, migrants fleeing violence and persecution automatically qualify for asylum, but those searching for work are turned away.
Italy has lobbied the EU for more funding and assistance, but for the time being its resources for dealing with the problem are limited. EU patrols are now confined to European waters, although some will occasionally venture farther out to help migrants in distress.
There is growing pressure on European authorities to take action and fund a larger sea patrol to allow migrants to make the crossing safely. But for now, migrants attempting to make it to Europe face a perilous and uncertain journey.
– Matt Lesso