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Dangerous Routes to a Better Life

by Mark Hay

May 18, 2015
Migrants arrive at the Italian Island of Lampedusa. Image by Sara Prestianni / noborder network via Flickr

Earlier this month, Maltese boats approaching rickety rafts of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe started reporting a strange phenomenon: the distressed migrants were waving them away, refusing assistance. Given the publicity of recent tragedies befalling migrants in the region, like the death of 800 in the capsizing of an oversized smugglers’ craft, this resistance to aid seems perplexing from the outside. As human traffickers cram more and more migrants onto their boats, migrants themselves report that they’re aware of how dangerous the trip to Europe has become—at 1,710 have died en route to date this year—and are trying to dissuade others from following in their footsteps. The migrants refusing Malta’s assistance in this climate just reflect the desperation of the quest and the shortcomings of Europe’s efforts to address the crisis, which focus upon rescue, but also on policing maritime borders and disabling smuggler networks to cut off transit routes and prevent migration.

Most of these migrants are fleeing from desolation or hostility to which they cannot return. At present there are between 500,000 and one million migrants awaiting the Mediterranean journey in Libya alone. The largest proportion of those waiting are Syrians fleeing conflict at home, like droves of Afghans, Iraqis, and even Myanmarese or Somalis making the crossing. Many are fleeing repression or poverty in nations like Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, or Senegal. And others await a similar though less numerous crossing through ports in the Aegean or western or eastern Mediterranean. They flee because they have no other recourse and believe that an education or job in Europe is their only hope for a future. With no other options, they’re willing to face a bleak journey to reach that end.

“Either I go to Europe,” one migrant in Libya recently told a VICE on HBO reporter, “or I die.”

The number of migrants coming across the Mediterranean (and the danger of the journey) has exploded in large part because of the conditions in war-torn post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya. A nation with a massive and porous desert border, it’s long been a haven for migrants, who under Gaddafi, found work in local oil-related industries. But after the fall of the government in 2011 and the collapse of the local economy, migrants continued to use the established Libyan routes as a staging point, drawn in by unemployed Libyans turning to trafficking as a good way to replace their lost incomes. These traffickers know that the Libyan coast guard is so desperately underfunded and understaffed that they cannot track down smugglers. When the state does manage to stop a shipment of migrants, they detain them for a time, and then just push them over the border and hope that they won’t return to try the crossing again—which many of the migrants inevitably do. The end result is a funneling and incubation effect, channeling desperation with no recourse onto a rapidly deteriorating human trafficking route.

Map showing Italy in green and Libya in orange. Image by Plumoyr via Wikimedia Commons

Until recently, European countries responded to this crisis mainly by trying to make sure that endless human lives weren’t lost in the Mediterranean Sea. Last year, Italy operated the massive Mare Nostrum program, spending millions to patrol thousands of square miles of water, rescuing migrants and dealing with their quest for asylum or migration later. But the continent seems to be tiring of this process; this year the response shrunk into Operation Triton, a smaller patrol restricting itself to 30 miles off of European coastal waters. Triton was doubled in size last month after the death of 800 migrants in one shipwreck, but even this is a smaller representation than in Mare Nostrum.

Part of this scaling-back resulted from a fear that rescuing migrants was making it easier or more inviting for refugees to make the trip. So instead the Triton era has seen a focus on the promotion of projects to destroy smugglers’ boats and repulse migrants. By leaving it to Libya and other local governments to deal with migrant issues instead, European authorities are attempting to avoid the underlying issues that cause the desperate journeys, hoping that some other body will accept responsibility instead.

Still hell-bent on making it to Europe, these migrants know that rescue comes with the risk of getting stuck in a camp or even pushed back (although there are now signs that Europe is willing to consider some migrant accommodations), rather than making it to target countries in northern Europe. They also know that for every migrant who dies, hundreds to thousands do make it to Europe. And they know that for every route that closes, another one will open, as it did when the focus of migration shifted to Libya after the 2011 collapse of the local government. So there’s very little incentive for migrants to abandon their ambitions, no matter how dangerous or deadly the crossing may be, because they’re backed into a corner—and so these people are willing to fight for a better life, eventually finding ways around any roadblock that Europeans set against them.

Somali migrants on their way to Sicily. Image by the Noborder Network via Flickr

“This is something that we cannot avoid,” Italian Red Cross Chief Francesco Rocca recently told the BBC. “If we block one route, they will find another route, so this is something we have to face…not only with words or actions that don’t match the concrete needs of the people.”

Rocca is not the only person to criticize responses to the migrant crisis. Institutions like the UN have called for Europe to reassess its minimalist approaches. And even smugglers, presumably not too hyped about their jobs and desperate for other opportunities, have openly spoken in the media about how we could address the issue with an eye to long-term solutions. Rather than rerouting migrants or “disincentivizing” them in ways that invite further death and chaos, critics and activists say the problem should be cut off at its inception, by funding local infrastructure in migrant countries of origin, investing in local economies, and pushing for peace and stability in any way possible.

This is easier said than done. It’s also a long-term solution, slowly lowering pressures on migration over the course of years-to-decades. To stem death rates over this timeline, European nations would have to expand legitimate channels and increase their tolerance of immigration. (To this end, a recent EU plan seems to initially address these issues with continent-wide migrant acceptance quotas.) Those in power would have to recognize the lack of alternatives for most migrants, saving lives and taking palliative measures in favor of making the best of this terrible situation for both those in dire straits and local economies. Yet long-term solutions, which might not even look like solutions to those in migrant-heavy regions in real-time, are politically unpalatable and logistically hellish. So unless significant pressure is placed on Europe and other nations and international bodies in a position to institute such programs, deaths will likely continue apace, as migrants continue to reject rescue, fulfilling their dire promise to reach Europe or die.

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Dangerous Routes to a Better Life