In recent years, the Central Mediterranean crossing has gained notoriety as the deadliest migration route globally. Thousands of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers risk their lives to make the treacherous journey from North Africa, mainly Libya, to Italy. Tragically, more than 20,000 lives have been lost on this route since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The alarming number of deaths has raised concerns about normalizing these tragedies.
After a brief decline during the pandemic, the number of migrants attempting the Mediterranean crossing has been increasing once again. In 2022, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that over 100,000 refugees arrived in Italy by boat, with nearly 1,400 migrants losing their lives in the process. Recent data shows that approximately 3,000 migrants arrived in Italy in just one week, overwhelming the facilities on the island of Lampedusa.
While Libya was traditionally the primary departure point for migrants heading to Europe, there has been a noticeable shift, with more people leaving from Tunisia. Migrants in Tunisia have faced attacks following an inflammatory and racist speech by the country’s President Kais Saied. Despite the risks involved for migrants, the European response to the situation has become increasingly stringent. The EU-wide border and coast guard agency, Frontex, has faced accusations of complicity in abuse due to their collaboration with Libyan authorities to prevent migration.
The Central Mediterranean crossing has seen a significant loss of life. In the first quarter of 2023, 441 deaths were recorded by the Missing Migrants Project, the worst that has ever happened since 2017. Delays in state response have contributed to further tragedies, with six incidents resulting in the deaths of over 127 people due to these delays. The absence of any response in the seventh event killed over 73 migrants. Furthermore, NGO-led Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts have faced various challenges and have been notably reduced.
The escalating humanitarian crisis in the Central Mediterranean is untenable. IOM Director General, António Vitorino, has emphasized the urgent need for proactive state-led coordination in search and rescue efforts. The responsibility-sharing and solidarity among states are crucial in reducing the loss of life along migration routes. Additionally, efforts to dismantle criminal smuggling networks and prosecute those who profit from vulnerable migrants’ desperation must be intensified.
The Central Mediterranean crossing stands as a stark reminder of the perils faced by migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers seeking a better life in Europe. The alarming number of deaths on this route necessitates immediate action from governments and international organizations. Saving people’s lives at sea is a legal obligation that states must fulfill, and proactive and dedicated search and rescue operations are essential.