With over 3,000 migrant fatalities this year and climbing, Europe is the most dangerous destination for “irregular” migration in the world, according to a new report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The report, “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration,” puts numbers to the rising global phenomenon of undocumented migrant deaths, an issue that has come to the fore in recent months as hundreds of people fleeing primarily the Middle East and North Africa have drowned on rickety smugglers’ ships in the Mediterranean and other seas around the world.
“Limited opportunities for safe and regular migration drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, feeding an unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people,” said IOM Director-General William Lacy Swing. “Undocumented migrants are not criminals. They are human beings in need of protection and assistance and deserving respect,” he said.
Researchers collated previously scattered data on migrant deaths since 2000 and settled on a conservative tally of 40,000 victims worldwide — or about eight each day over the past 14 years. As steep as that estimate is, the IOM said it likely undershoots the actual number of irregular migrants who perish making arduous journeys across land and sea because so many governments make no attempt to keep track of their deaths.
In fact, counting the number of victims is, in itself, a step forward. In part because governments can deflect responsibility for irregular migrants who die along their borders, there has never been comprehensive data on the scale and scope of such fatalities. According to the IOM, “no organization at the global level is currently responsible for systematically monitoring the number of deaths that occur."
The results of IOM’s research found a concentration of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, about 75 percent, or 3,072 of the estimated deaths this year, compared with 700 in all of 2013. The Italian government has already reported nearly three times the number of undocumented migrants attempting to reach its soil than in 2013, or 112,000 people. Those figures, the IOM noted, reflect a “dramatic increase in the number of migrants trying to reach Europe.”
Part of the explanation for the rising toll could be better recordkeeping of migrant deaths in Europe. But more salient is Europe’s proximity to the violent conflicts roiling the Middle East and North Africa, which account for many of the world’s 51 million refugees — the most since World War II. More than 3 million people have fled Syria’s civil war since it erupted in 2011, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues to drive out thousands more from Syria as well as Iraq. Additional turmoil in Libya, Egypt, Gaza and Sudan spur a steady stream of irregular migrants to risk it all by climbing aboard less-than-seaworthy boats.
But the spike in migrant deaths also appears to be a factor of Europe’s security-minded border policy, which has grown increasingly restrictive as right-wing, anti-immigration parties have surged in elections across the continent.
Under the Geneva Conventions, those fleeing persecution on protected grounds — including religious, racial, national and political identity or beliefs — are eligible for asylum. But first they must reach European soil, and they often do so without legal authorization.
“Europe has traditionally had a spontaneous arrival asylum policy,” explained Alexander Betts, the incoming director of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Center and an expert on asylum and migration. “In Europe, if you’re going to be a refugee, you have to make it by yourself. And yet Europe and the EU have made policies increasingly restrictive, developing a Fortress Europe response.”
In particular, the EU border patrol agency, Frontex, has expanded its patrol of the Mediterranean, under pressure to turn away more boats of would-be migrants (though it has also helped save passengers on vessels in distress). According to Betts, this shift of Europe’s “virtual border” outward constitutes a “failure to address human rights needs responsibly.”
By contrast, the United States has seen the number of migrant deaths taper off in recent years. As of 2012, net migration to the U.S. from Mexico had fallen to zero primarily because of a weakened American job market and heightened border security. Still, nearly 6,000 undocumented migrants have perished along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2000, including 230 so far in 2014.
The research was inspired by two shipwrecks of overcrowded smugglers’ boats that killed more than 400 undocumented migrants off the Italian island of Lampedusa last October, an incident that underscored the dangerous conditions would-be migrants subject themselves to in order to escape violent conflict, persecution and economic hardship.
Two weeks ago, about 500 migrants — Syrians, Libyans, Palestinians and Sudanese, among others — sank to their deaths 300 miles off the coast of Malta when their traffickers rammed the migrants’ vessel because they refused to transfer to a dilapidated ship.
In its report, the IOM called for greater investment and integration in reporting on migrant deaths among governments and international organizations not only to better understand the scope of the problem but also to allow relatives of victims to learn of their fate.
According to a chapter of the report that criticizes Australia’s apparent indifference to migrant deaths off its shores, authors Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering of Monash University in Melbourne suggested that their government devote similar resources to keeping tabs on irregular migration as it has done to help track down the high-profile victims of the MH370 crash.
“The failure to comprehensively document and investigate deaths of asylum seekers at sea or in immigration custody while other fatal incidents invoke large-scale and international ad hoc responses, as in the case of missing Flight MH370, suggest that certain lives effectively count for more than others, both at a domestic level and within the international community,” they wrote.
Betts added that governments need to coordinate better on a multilateral level to ensure that those fleeing persecution had safe passage to countries that might grant them the protections they are entitled to under international law.
“We can’t stop migration, but what we can do is manage it in a way that respects human rights,” he said. “We’re facing a global displacement challenge, and we need new solutions.”