The Growing Crisis of Migrant Boats in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean Sea has become a graveyard for thousands of migrants attempting to reach Europe in search of safety, opportunity, and a better life for themselves and their families. The recent shipwreck off the coast of Tunisia that claimed the lives of 41 people is just one tragic example of the dangers faced by those embarking on this treacherous journey. Overcrowded and poorly designed boats, stormy weather, and a lack of effective international efforts all contribute to the high death toll in the central Mediterranean.

According to European border agency Frontex, the central Mediterranean has become the “most active route” into the European Union, with a significant increase in detections reported by national authorities this year. In the first seven months of 2023, over 89,000 detections were recorded, more than double the numbers from the previous year. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has reported more than 1,800 migrant deaths in the central Mediterranean so far this year, surpassing the total for the entire year of 2022.

The reasons why migrants risk their lives on this perilous journey are varied. Many are fleeing war, conflict, or persecution, while others are in search of better economic opportunities and a chance to support their families. The stories of those who have survived the journey are harrowing, with individuals recounting the loss of loved ones and the immense risks they took to reach Europe.

Tunisia has now become the main point of departure, surpassing Libya, due to a wave of racism against black Africans in the latter country. However, the Libya crossing remains dangerous, both geographically and politically. The opening up of the Eastern Libya route, controlled by Wagner-supported militias, has had a significant impact on the increase in fatalities. The longer journey and the lack of rescue operations by the Italian and Greek governments have heightened the risks faced by migrants.

The boats used for these crossings are often overcrowded and unseaworthy, ranging from rubber rafts to fishing vessels. Metal boats have become a popular choice among “greedy” people smugglers trying to compete for migrants’ business by offering them discounted crossings. But these metal boats, often carrying dozens of people, have been described as “coffins in water” by Chris Borowski, a spokesperson for Frontex.

The dangers of the journey are exacerbated by unpredictable weather conditions and rough seas. Storms and bad weather increase the risk to life, but smugglers continue to send people out to sea, disregarding the danger. The search and rescue efforts in the central Mediterranean are primarily governed by national governments, with limited oversight from Frontex. NGOs operate rescue vessels in the area, but they are tightly regulated, and there are concerns about the lack of proactive and comprehensive SAR operations.

Critics argue that the presence of rescue NGOs encourages migrants to undertake the dangerous journey, while others blame the EU’s inadequate response, including its partnerships with the Libyan coastguard. NGOs have also criticized a new Italian law that requires their vessels to head to distant ports after rescues, limiting their ability to patrol for more boats in distress.

The International Organization for Migration and other UN agencies have called for coordinated European search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, along with safer legal pathways for migration and asylum. The European Commission defends its efforts in enhancing SAR coordination and deterring smugglers, but these tragedies at sea continue to occur.

As individuals and communities, we must be aware of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the central Mediterranean and advocate for more effective international efforts to save lives. We should support organizations working on the ground to provide aid, assistance, and safe passage for migrants. Additionally, addressing the root causes of migration, such as conflict, poverty, and lack of opportunities, is crucial to prevent these tragedies from occurring in the first place.

The plight of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea is a stark reminder of the urgent need for global cooperation, compassion, and proactive measures to protect human lives and uphold our shared values of dignity and equality. Only by addressing the underlying issues and working together can we hope to put an end to this ongoing tragedy.