Last week’s drowning of hundreds of refugees in the Mediterranean brings into sharp focus one aspect of the human tragedy that has struck Libya. According to the UN refugee agency, the incident occurred when smugglers attempted to move refugees from smaller boats to a larger vessel between Libya and Italy. Some 500 African refugees were attempting to reach Italy from eastern Libya earlier in April when the accident occurred. Only 41 refugees survived — 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, six Egyptians and one Sudanese. They set out from near Tobruk last week on a 30-meter long boat carrying between 100 and 200 people.
It was in April 2015 the deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean in modern times took place. At least 800 people of different nationalities lost their lives after setting off from Tripoli. Only 28 people survived the worst maritime disaster ever recorded in the Mediterranean.
Almost 25,000 people have arrived in Europe using the Mediterranean route from Libya so far in 2016, according to the UN refugee agency. In total, some 130,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe this year.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 179,552 refugees and migrants have reached Europe by crossing the Mediterranean or Aegean seas. At least 761 have died or gone missing during the treacherous crossing. Last month, 9,676 people reached Italy via the Mediterranean Sea. This is more than double the number of arrivals in February and three times the number who arrived in March 2015. Europe’s refugee crisis is becoming more acute as Syrians now join the exodus of Libyans and the Africans who use Libya as a jump-off point. Syrians have yet to reach Libya following the closure of the Greek route, but migration specialists expect them to try again from Libya in increasing numbers later in the year. Right now, Turkey is the prime entry point for hundreds of thousands of Syrians making their way to Europe, and Italy’s navy continues to rescue thousands of refugees off Libya’s coast.
Last year’s mass drowning generated expressions of sympathy from European leaders. Europe pledged more funds to rescue migrants at sea and crack down on smuggling. But smugglers continue to pack migrants into larger vessels to cross the seas from North Africa. This is what leads to huge death tolls when one ship sinks. As Europe keeps it borders closed, formal resettlement procedures remain inadequate, and Iraq, Syria and Libya continue to be in turmoil, more and more people will walk into the trap laid by smuggling networks. It’s important to go after smugglers who engage in dangerous tactics and cost human lives, but ultimately many more lives will be saved by creating conditions in which refugees can travel to Europe. By attacking smuggling networks without presenting sufficient alternatives, Europe may cause more deaths at sea. More refugees will languish in third countries already strained by conflicts.
Nobody disputes the need for enhanced investigation and prosecution of the criminal networks of smugglers. Ways can be found to prevent migrant smuggling, through a reinforced cooperation with third countries. But care should be taken to see that such measures do not lead to a situation in which smugglers abandon “ghost ships” or sink boats. We know how one boat from Egypt’s north coast was deliberately sunk by smugglers off the coast of Malta, drowning between 400 and 500 people on board.
As human rights groups rightly say, European leaders are focusing on deterring refugees rather than resettling them. Last week’s shipwreck should prompt renewed calls from refugee advocates for Western countries to provide safe and legal access to Europe. In this context, the UNHCR did the right thing in calling on Europe to provide increased regular pathways for admission of refugees and asylum seekers. European leaders should also consider the refugee agency’s other recommendations aimed at reducing demand for people smuggling, onward movement, and dangerous boat journeys.