14 Apr 2015

Lampedusa: why are so many migrants dying at sea?

The UNHCR says that at least 500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far in 2015 – 30 times higher than in the same period last year. Channel 4 News asks if European policy is to blame.

On Tuesday, 846 migrants were rescued at sea in Sicily – including 120 women and 40 children. A dead body was also recovered off the coast of Libya, bringing the number of casualties up to eight since the weekend.

The new arrivals bring the total number of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to more than 15,000 since the start of the year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Why are migrants heading for Europe?

Over the past couple of years, Europe has seen increasing waves of migration as Syrians and sub-Saharan Africans cross the Mediterranean. From unrest in Libya, civil war in Syria and the rise of Islamic State militants in Iraq, thousands of refugees have been forced to leave their homes in search of better lives.

The UNHCR says that at least 50 per cent of migrants arriving in Europe are people in search of asylum. As well as civil conflict, migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia are heading to Europe to escape poverty.

How many migrants are we talking about?

In 2014, almost 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, three times higher than the previous peak of 2011 when the Arab Spring was in full swing. In Italy, more than 170,000 people arrived by sea, mainly from Eritrea and Syria.

There are two other major sea routes, leading to Spain and its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves, and to Greece, mostly from Turkey. Over 3,500 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2014, making it the deadliest year of all. So far, in the first three months of 2015, around 480 people have lost their lives or gone missing.

How did Europe respond to the crisis?

In 2014, Italy formally ended its year-long mission, Mare Nostrum, to rescue stricken migrants, replacing it with a joint Europe-backed operation named Triton. The Triton mission – that patrols waters within 30 miles of the Italian coast – relies on human and technical resources made available by the participating member states.

Italian authorities have blamed the number of deaths on a lack of funding by the European Union. They say Mare Nostrum cost Italy about €9m a month, compared with Triton’s budget of €2.9m. Refugee advocate groups have also said the rise in deaths is a sign of Triton’s inability to cope with the crisis.

What does the UNHCR propose?

UNHCR's new proposals include the establishment of a robust European search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, similar to the Italian Mare Nostrum operation which came to an end last year, and an EU scheme to compensate shipping companies for losses incurred while rescuing people in distress at sea.

The UNHCR is also urging the EU to explore solutions to address challenges once refugees arrive in Europe, ensuring adequate support for them and avoiding a situation where a few countries have to shoulder the main responsibility for them.

Federico Fossi, from the UNHCR, told Channel 4 News: "UNHCR is calling on the European Union to urgently change its approach to dealing with sea crossings with a view to ensuring that saving lives is the top-most priority."

What are European leaders saying?

On Monday, European and north African foreign officials, meeting in Barcelona, said conflict in north Africa and the Middle East had prompted the rise in numbers. Security officials also said that Europe faces a growing threat if groups such as Islamic State gain a foothold in Libya.

“Jihadist terrorism is a direct threat for the security of our countries and our citizens, and without doubt is our main threat right now,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said at the meeting. “I am convinced that a shared commitment between both shores of the Mediterranean will allow us to defeat terrorist barbarism.”

Mr Rajoy said cooperation with countries of origin and transit was the only way to tackle illegal migration.

What will Europe do now?

The European Commission is working on a new migration strategy, due by mid-May. The 28-member EU said in March said it was bringing forward the launch of a new migration policy because of the urgency in dealing with the flood of migrants across the Mediterranean.

In December, the European parliament also passed a resolution on the situation in the Mediterranean and the need for a holistic EU approach to migration. MEPs called for a comprehensive EU approach to migration and more effort to prevent further loss of life at sea – including a more efficient and better funded EU border agency. The Civil Liberties Committee have been tasked with drawing up a set of recommendations before the end of the year.