Immigration is often crudely compared to a “flood”—migrants portrayed as human “tides” streaming chaotically over the border. But on the Mediterranean coastline, that often hyperbolic metaphor can seem disturbingly apt. On any given day, boatloads of people are adrift on the sea, headed to southern Europe to escape conflict, persecution or devastating poverty. And in shipwreck after shipwreck, bodies get strewn onto the rough waters, abandoned by the governments of their own nations and of their destinations.
According to a report by Amnesty International, the migrant crisis along Europe’s Mediterranean border is growing deadlier by the day. But European countries, particularly the wealthy northern states of “Fortress Europe,” are neglecting the humanitarian crisis bubbling up from the global south.
Despite efforts to deter unauthorized migration, advocates say that people do not stop coming, and so they keep dying. An average of 40,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean corridor annually since 1998. In 2014 alone, the seas have claimed at least 2,500 lives already, up from 1,500 in 2011. Italy’s search-and-rescue maritime humanitarian agency, Operation Mare Nostrum, has saved more than 130,000 refugees and migrants since last October. But researchers note “the real number will never be known, as many bodies are lost at sea.”
Amnesty condemns EU policymakers on multiple fronts: the intergovernmental border security force, Frontex, has intensified enforcement of western land borders, which cuts off critical land routes through Greece and neighboring countries, and in turn drives migrants toward more perilous sea crossings. Additionally, European governments have failed to take collective responsibility for the migrants, so southern coastal states are unfairly burdened with processing the bulk of the arrivals. And after landing, the humanitarian crisis continues: migrants are frequently denied due process, which can prevent traumatized refugees from qualifying for the asylum they deserve.
Now, as funding and logistical resources run thin, the countries helming the frontline rescue efforts, Malta and Italy, have warned that they cannot sustain their humanitarian programs without major assistance from other EU nations.
The migrants’ stories span the spectrum of humanitarian tragedy. Refugees are fleeing Syria, Palestine and Eritrea in droves. Others are driven by economic desperation, paying smugglers to leave Gambia, Senegal and other poor nations to join the labor migration cycle.