Fortress Europe’s borders are cracking—but the slow massacre of migrants on the Mediterranean continues to be treated as a security threat instead of a humanitarian imperative. This year, record numbers of migrants may die at sea, with thousands risking their lives on smuggling routes each month, while European officials ignore their pleas for refuge and instead steer them toward further exploitation and violence.
The latest effort to “deter” migrant vessels, according to Amnesty International’s analysis, reveals Europe’s shameful attempt to flout social responsibility under the pretext of border “security.” Officials are outsourcing a maritime massacre to smugglers, ramshackle prison camps on the African coast, and the threadbare coast guard of a failed state.
Europe’s border choke point has shifted to the Mediterranean coast following the EU’s shutdown of the Greece-Turkish border as an alternative route for refugees, washing ravaged boats onto the shores of Spain and Italy. The death rate is surging as governments scramble to close, rather than open, their gates.
Compared to late 2015, the death rate on the sea routes to Spain and Italy has spiked from 0.89 percent to 2.7 percent in 2017. Most are from African countries, primarily Nigeria, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Senegal, and Mali. While some have come seeking asylum from political persecution, others are seeking jobs and have been unable to find safe, legal pathways to European Union territory. Separated relatives often migrate to reunify with already-settled families in Europe. Desperate families are lured by smugglers, often in exchange for debt bondage.
Regardless of how and why they came, Amnesty argues, everyone deserves the right to safe passage, emergency aid and shelter when they arrive, a fair legal review and opportunities to reunite with their communities.
Since January, some 2,000 people have died on the Mediterranean crossing, despite a net decrease in the number making the journey. The whole of 2016 saw nearly 190,000 arrivals and a shocking 4,581 deaths. Preoccupied with their domestic politics and partisan clashes among member states, European ministers remain deadlocked over developing a unified humanitarian response, preferring instead to erase migrant boats from their political sight line and placate right-wing constituents.
Yet migrants keep coming, because the wars and upheaval driving them from home persist. The journey often entails extreme violence, sexual assault, slave labor, or mass detention in squalid camps. Children and women are especially vulnerable to violence, exploitation, or captivity by local militias. Women are at high risk of sex and labor trafficking. Amnesty reports that the latest migrants seem to be in a more deteriorated state, scarred by starvation and assault wounds, with many “heavily pregnant” women. Smugglers are launching unseaworthy boats in multiples—creating a more dangerous burden for emergency responders: As one rescue worker described it, “Every rescue now is a tragedy waiting to happen.”