15 Apr 2015

The Mediterranean’s deadliest migration sea routes

As 400 migrants – including children – are feared to have died after a boat capsized off Libya, Channel 4 News looks at the desperate journeys migrants are taking to reach Europe.

The boat, carrying about 550 migrants in total, flipped 24 hours after leaving the Libyan coast, according to some of the 150 survivors who were rescued. The survivors were mostly sub-Saharan Africans.

Officials say there has been a marked rise in the number of people trying to sail from the north African coast to Europe, with 8,500 rescued from the sea since Friday say the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

With summer approaching, over 500,000 people are waiting to set out from Libya, according to EU border agency Frontex. However, migrants are also using other sea routes to get to their destinations.

Central Mediterranean route

This is the name of the migratory flow coming from northern Africa towards Italy and Malta through the Mediterranean Sea. For years, this route has been an important entry point for irregular migrants to the EU, and in 2008, nearly 40,000 of them were detected.

These were mainly nationals from Tunisia, Nigeria, Somalia and Eritrea. However, this movement stopped almost completely in 2009 after the Italian government signed a bilateral agreement with Libya.

This changed in 2011, when the eruption of civil unrest in Tunisia and Libya in 2011 created a massive spike in the number of migrants to more than 64,000 along this route.

With the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in August of 2011, the migratory pressure dropped almost entirely, and detections in 2012 remained very low. But the following year saw a second peak in the departures from Libya.

Above: Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller meets a Syrian family desperate to reach Europe

The dramatic conditions of the overcrowded boats used by the migrants were particularly visible in October 2013, when 366 migrants lost their lives near Lampedusa when their boat suddenly capsized.

In 2014, detections in the Central Mediterranean area reached a staggering level. More than 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy alone. Many migrants have come from Libya, where the lack of rule of law and basic law enforcement allow smuggling networks to thrive.

Syrians and Eritreans were the top two nationalities to have travelled to Italy by sea, but numerous Africans coming from Sub-Saharan regions also use this route.

The increasing number of migrants departing from northern Africa also led to an increase in the number of people who perished at sea. According to UNHCR, in 2014 some 3,500 migrants lost their lives while crossing the Mediterranean.

Apulia and Calabria route

This route refers to irregular migration coming from Turkey and Egypt and also includes the migratory movements between Greece and Italy. The types of the vessels detected in the Ionian Sea are different from the ones used on other maritime borders – the smugglers tend to use yachts rather than fishing boats.

The smugglers on board the sailing boats are the only people visible while navigating and are sometimes accompanied by women in order to avoid attracting the attention of the patrolling authorities. All migrants tend to be hidden below deck in overcrowded conditions with insufficient ventilation.

Smuggling networks from Egypt, on the other hand, typically make use of larger “mother ships.” Rather than setting off from Egypt in fishing boats, the new method sees bigger vessels carrying larger numbers of migrants, towing fishing boats behind them.

Once close enough to shore, the migrants are transferred to the fishing boats for the remainder of the journey while the mother ship returns to port. The main nationalities using this route include Syrians, but also Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

Above: NOOR photographer Francesco Zizolo last year shot this moving footage of the migrant boat that sank off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013

In 2014 the smugglers have started using much larger boats from Turkey – decommissioned cargo vessels departing mainly from the Turkish port of Mersin towards Italy. The profits the smugglers make using this method are staggering considering that on average the Syrians are charged about £5,000 each for the service.

With freighters frequently filled with as many as 600 people, the revenue of the smugglers runs into the millions. Travelling this way not only circumvents the considerable danger of capsizing in a small boat in rough seas: it also avoids having to go to Libya.

The new route from Turkey is not without dangers however. The engines of the old ships are often highly unreliable. The danger of shipwreck is greatly increased by the smugglers’ habit of switching off the freighter’s AIS (the Automatic Identification System) to make the boat electronically invisible to the authorities but also to other boats and vessels navigating on the Mediterranean Sea.

On numerous occasions, the crew would set the vessels on autopilot and either abandon the boat or hide among other passengers to avoid arrest.