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Why Mediterranean migrant rescues are nothing new

More than 26,000 people have died or gone missing in less than a decade, and numbers attempting to cross have soared this year.

An aerial view of a boat at see with around 400 migrants traveling from North Africa into Europe. Giacomo Zorzi/ Sea-Watch/Handout via Reuters
One of two boats in distress on the central Mediterranean that were being escorted to safety by the Italian coast guard on 11 April 2023. This handout obtained by Reuters on 10 April 2023.

The Italian Coast Guard scrambling to rescue around 1,200 asylum seekers and migrants in distress in the Mediterranean Sea made international headlines yesterday. 


One boat, carrying around 800 people, was rescued around 200 kilometres off the coast of southeastern Sicily in an operation complicated by the severe overcrowding of the vessel, while efforts to rescue another ship carrying around 400 hundred people – which had run out of fuel and was taking on water – were also underway. 


With some 1,700 people having already been rescued by the Italian coast guard in other operations since Friday, these are large numbers. But there’s nothing new about boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants departing from North Africa and the Middle East ending up in distress in the Mediterranean. Since 2014, more than 26,000 people have died or gone missing undertaking such journeys to try to reach Europe. 


The vast majority of those deaths – more than 20,000 – have taken place in the central Mediterranean, between North Africa and Italy and Malta, where more than 440 people have already died this year: On average, that’s more than four deaths per day.  


The number of people arriving in Italy has, however, increased from around 6,800 between January and the beginning of April last year to more than 27,000 so far this year – mostly people from Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Bangladesh, Tunisia, and Pakistan.


Departures from Tunisia are now outpacing those from Libya – which has traditionally been the main North African launching point for asylum seekers and migrants hoping to reach Europe. That may be due to deteriorating economic and political conditions in Tunisia as well as a spike in racist violence against sub-Saharan Africans in the country triggered by an incendiary speech given by President Kais Saied in early March. 


The uptick in asylum seeker and migrant arrivals to Italy is leading to chatter about a new ‘European migrant crisis’. But it’s worth remembering that more than 140,000 people crossed the border from Ukraine into Poland on a single day in early March last year, shortly after Russia launched its invasion, and EU countries are hosting more than five million Ukrainians who have been granted some form of protection in the past year. 


The arrivals of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian asylum seekers and migrants to the EU across the Mediterranean has been a politically contentious issue for years, and the increase in arrivals this year will likely provide fodder for populist politicians and lead to calls for more stringent control of the bloc’s external borders. 


Italy is already being led by a far-right government that promised to implement a naval blockade to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching the country as part of its election campaign last year. 


And European countries and the EU have been doubling down on tough policies for years: withdrawing navy and coast guard assets from performing search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean; impeding the work of the NGOs that step in to try to fill the gap; providing training, equipment, and support to the Libyan and Tunisian coast guards to help them intercept asylum seekers and migrants before they can reach the EU; and striking deals with third countries to encourage them to crack down on migration. 


With migration in the Mediterranean set to be a hotly debated issue in the coming months, here’s a selection of our reporting to give you some added context:


Interactive: The European approach to stopping Libya migration

Explore the abusive and deadly effects of EU and Libyan policies in the central Mediterranean.

A man holds pictures of an x-ray that shows his injuries. Behind him are people sitting outside tents.

African migrants stranded in Tunisia amid rising xenophobia

President Kais Saied is accused of scapegoating African migrants to keep a grip on power.

Civilian refugees continuously arrive from Ukraine at Medyka Shehyni border crossing in Poland.

The EU should treat all refugees like it is treating Ukrainians

For years, Europe has externalised migration control to others and presided over a divisive and abusive asylum system. It’s time for a change.

Asylum seekers and migrants wait on the Italian island of Lampedusa to board a coast guard ship bound for Sicily.

What a far-right government in Italy means for asylum seekers and migrants

Beyond stoking racism and xenophobia, experts fear Meloni could double down on migration policies that lead to more deaths at seas.

Tareq Alaows pictured in Berlin. The former Damascus law student made history last year when he became the first Syrian refugee to run for a seat in the German parliament.

Q&A: The EU’s ‘racist’ refugee system, and how to fix it

It’s time for all refugees to be treated equally, according to Tareq Alaows, the first Syrian refugee to run for the German parliament.

Migrants arbitrarily detained at Tarik al-Sika detention centre in Tripoli – one of around 20 facilities where detainees in Libya are trapped in a cycle of extortion, torture, and trafficking – on 16 December 2020.

Libya fails to stop migrant detention abuses, as EU-backed returns soar

Efforts to improve conditions for migrants have gone nowhere, causing a problem for the EU as it continues to support Mediterranean returns.

A Libyan Coast Guard sailor throws a rope towards boat carrying migrants

What happens to migrants forcibly returned to Libya?

Tens of thousands of people have been returned to Libya from the Mediterranean, with EU support, to face detention in centres where abuses are rife.

Death on the Central Mediterranean: 2013-2020

EU countries have turned their backs on asylum seeker and migrant deaths while cracking down on the NGOs that have tried to fill the gap.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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