Nearly 8,500 migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean were rescued over the Easter weekend. The Italian Coastguard reported that 73 separate rescue operations were undertaken and that 13 bodies, including that of an 8-year-old boy, were recovered. Among those rescued were a woman in active labour and a two-week-old baby and her mother. Officials attribute the increase in attempted crossings to the warmer spring weather.
So far in 2017 more than 30,000 people have entered Europe by sea, a number drastically lower than the 172,774 who had entered in the first 90 days of 2016. Although the numbers are down, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean remains a major issue. More than 670 people have died so far in 2017 attempting to make the crossing. The large majority of these deaths have occurred on the Libya-Italy route, one that is growing in popularity among smugglers.
The European response to the migrant crisis has largely focused on deterrence. In reaction to the flood of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece during the peak of the crisis in 2015, the European Union struck a deal with Turkey last year. In exchange for billions in support, Turkey agreed to allow Greece to return new asylum seekers to the country. Migrants are now attempting to enter the EU via Italy, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of people crossing from Libya. The EU has now given €200 million to the Libyan government to help them disrupt smugglers and prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. A number of aid groups have criticized Europe’s policies, claiming that they have increased the risk to migrants and refugees, and are violations of international humanitarian law.
The majority of those trying to enter Europe come from a number of Sub-Saharan African countries, where political unrest, violence, and poverty have driven millions to seek a better life elsewhere. Many spend weeks, months, or in some cases even decades, moving about in search of peace and opportunity. Libya has become a destination for those looking to make their way to Europe. However, once in the country, many have reported being subjected to rape, torture, slavery, and kidnapping for ransom. Smugglers, looking to make money and avoid authorities, have increasingly sent migrants out into the sea on poorly constructed and overcrowded boats, often without enough fuel, food, or water to make the journey to Italy. Under the deal with Europe, Libyan authorities who intercept smuggling are meant to return migrants, sending them back to these precarious and unsafe conditions.
According to the UNHRC, an average of 14 people died every day in the Mediterranean in 2016. 1 in 6 migrants were children, and 88% of these were unaccompanied by an adult. The events over this Easter weekend indicate that this crisis in ongoing. The European strategy of intercepting or returning refugees and migrants to countries where they face abuse and uncertainty is not a sustainable solution. If officials hope to avoid the tragedies of past years, they must reassess their approach and provide security and support to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.