3 Dec 2014

Why are migrants so desperate to reach Europe?

One in every 50 migrants who try to reach Europe across the Mediterranean Sea will die on the journey. What is so terrible in their home countries to force people into such a desperate voyage?

Migrant shoe in Mediterranean

Above: a migrant’s shoe photographed after a boat carrying 200 sank off the coast of Libya in August 2014.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, around 165,000 refugees made the Mediterranean Sea crossing this year, and more than 3,000 died.

Migration across the Mediterranean has risen rapidly in recent years – there have been more people making the crossing in 2014 than in the previous four years combined.

In response to migrant deaths – arguably, conversely – the UK and other European countries have ended stop and search rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Watch more: Dying to get there - the boat that became a tomb

Some MPs, such as Philip Davies, say this will stop migrants “trying their luck” – but does the reality of life in their home countries make the dangerous journey, even without the safety net of rescue crews, worth it?

Almost half of the people arriving in Europe are from Eritrea and Syria, with thousands also venturing from Mali, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia and Egypt as well as other sub-Saharan African countries.

Behind them they leave war and human rights abuses.


Mediterranean migrants in 2014: 28,557

Many of those who died off the coast of Lampedusa were fleeing Eritrea’s appalling human rights record.

National service is mandatory for all men and women in Eritrea – but rather than serving in their country’s military for a few years, mandatory service in Eritrea can be extended indefinitely and “soldiers” are routinely used on civilian labour projects in what Amnesty International says amount to “forced labour”.

On top of this thousands of people are currently held in detention for questioning government policies, their work as journalists, for practicing a religion not recognised by the state, and for trying to evade national service.


Above: an Eritrean soldier covers his face at a refugee camp in Calais.

Torture is widespread, with reports that prisoners of conscience and political prisoners have been tied with ropes in painful positions, beaten with sticks, whipped with electric wires and forced to walk over sharp objects.

Seble, now 28, left Eritrea when she was 17 – paying a smuggler to transport her, along with 22 others, to Greece in a plastic dinghy.

“I left because of religious persecution. They don’t allow you to be a Christian there,” she says.

Henok Ahforom who lost his sister in the Lampedusa boat tragedy, a journey he made himself, said staying in Eritrea is like “dying without trying”.

Eritrea has said that UN criticisms of its human rights record are “politically motivated”.


Mediterranean migrants in 2014: 23,845

An estimated nine million Syrians have fled their homes since the start of the civil war – and it is not difficult to see why.

In a country where towns and cities have been turned to rubble, government and rebel forces continue to carry out massacre, and carry out atrocities against civilians including murder, torture, hostage-taking, rape, sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Barrel bombs, car bombs and chemical weapons have spread fear through the population and the death toll, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, is now over 200,000.


Above: a boy carries his belongings through the rubble of an Aleppo neighbourhood in November 2014

Mahmoud, who fled Syria with his two daughters after losing his wife in a bombing attack, arrived in Italy in April after being rescued by an Italian navy vessel. The family had been stranded on a boat carrying 200 migrants.

“I had just lost one of the most important people in my life and could not risk the lives of the other two, my daughters”, he said.

The trio’s journey lasted four months.

In the Channel 4 News report of migration on Tuesday, Syrian refugee Doaa described how the boat she was on sunk in the Mediterranean and she was forced to move corpses aside with her hand to try and reach living people.


Mediterranean migrants in 2014: 7,971

The fallout of the northern Malian conflict, in which al-Qaeda linked rebels and Tuareg separatists took control of large parts of the country, remains. Though the French military effectively dispersed the militant groups, it did not eliminate them and attacks continue to this day, although peace talks are currently under way.


Above: French soldiers patrolling in Timbuktu, Mali in November 2014

Last month, Islamist fighters kidnapped 10 children and killed two others who tried to escape, and bomb attacks have taken place.

On top of this the UN has received reports of a range of human rights violations alleged to have been carried out by Malian soldiers including summary executions, enforced disappearances, rapes, looting, and torture.


Mediterranean migrants in 2014: 5,861

Boko Haram’s campaign of killings and kidnap has spread fear throughout north-east Nigeria. In April the group reached a new level of notoriety after kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls.


Above: the victim of a suspected Boko Haram suicide bomb attack in northern Nigeria’s largest city Kano in November 2014.

Since then it has continued with bomb and gun attacks as well as burning homes and agricultural fields. Boko Haram has killed thousands and kidnapped hundreds, keeping the country is an official state of emergency. An attack by the group on Tuesday in Yobe left 33 policemen and six soldiers dead.

The UN also reported higher number of Gazan refugees crossing the Mediterranean to escape the recent conflict with Israel. More than 2,000 Palestinian were killed in Gaza when the area came under bombardment in the summer.