Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Europe’s worsening refugee crisis

Why people risk their lives on the Mediterranean

August 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

The deaths of thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean have finally caught the attention of European lawmakers. But what makes people leave their homes? Leave their families? Trek across half of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, endure incredible hardship and abuse by smugglers, and then risk their lives on unseaworthy boats?

My colleagues and I have interviewed hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers in numerous European Union countries, from Spain to Bulgaria. In May, we spoke with men, women and children who had just arrived on the Italian and Greek coasts. They came from Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, countries torn apart by war and violence, and from Eritrea, which has one of the most repressive governments in Africa.

Hannan, 47, and Ghazal, 55, reached the Greek island of Lesbos the night before we met. They left Aleppo with their three adult children, including Karan, their youngest, who has physical and developmental disabilities. Speaking over each other, as couples do, they told us they had left a good life in Syria because of the fighting, the crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of medical care for their son. In contrast to the common characterization of refugees as opportunists, Ghazal was ashamed to have come to Greece without permission.

“We came here illegally,” he said. “It’s the first time in my life I did something illegal. I was forced to do this kind of journey because I didn’t want to put my family in danger.”

The ever-growing threat of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) is forcing people to flee the region in droves. Mohannad, a 30-year-old from Raqqah, Syria, told us that ISIL “put you in detention just because you don’t have a beard, and they whip you. If they arrest you at a checkpoint and find cigarettes on you, you are beaten and locked out in direct sun for a day.” For him, the $1,500 he paid a smuggler to help him escape to Greece was well worth the money.

Afghans are the second-largest group of asylum seekers reaching the Greek isles. Mubarek and his wife braved the two-month journey from Parwan, in northern Afghanistan, to the Greek coast with their young sons ages 5, 7, and 12. He told us:

The Taliban kidnapped one of my relatives, and when they found out he was in the army and worked for the government, they killed him. I came down from my shop and saw his dead body. They abducted other people and demanded ransom. We were afraid to go out at night. Then a Taliban rocket hit my shop and demolished it. After that, it was difficult to earn a living. Still, the Taliban would ask us for money. They also asked us to join forces to fight the government. That was also the reason I left.

A quick tally of what they paid smugglers: $800 per person to get from Afghanistan to Iran; $2,500 per person to get from Iran to Turkey; and $800 per person to get from Turkey to Greece. In total, $20,500 for the family of five.

Search-and-rescue efforts have made a difference, but the EU should commit to sustaining such initiatives over the long-term to avoid future deaths at sea.

Fear of military conscription and recruitment by armed groups is a common reason for flight, from not only Syria and Afghanistan, but also Somalia and Eritrea. Young Somali men we spoke with on Lampedusa, Italy’s tiny outpost in the Mediterranean, also talked about the impact of the armed Islamist group Al-Shabaab on their lives.

Abdishakur, a 19-year-old from Mogadishu, told us that al-Shabaab “come and blow up houses, mosques. Al-Shabaab approaches guys like me to convert them, get them to blow themselves up. If they come, you do the mission and you die. If you don’t, they kill you.” 

Fahad, 18, left Mogadishu for similar reasons but was caught at the Sudanese-Ethiopian border after Ethiopian soldiers fired at the car packed with other refugees and asylum seekers. He told us:

Three people died from bullet wounds. I spent one month in prison. They wanted to deport me to Somalia, but I escaped. I made contact with a smuggler and then was one month in Sudan waiting for others to join the group. They took us to the desert in southern Libya. I stayed there six months because my family didn’t have the money [to pay the smugglers]. We ate only once a day. There was a lot of beating, with stones, sticks, and pipes. The smugglers killed two people who were trying to escape. I saw it. It was a boy and a girl, running away, and the men with guns shot at them. They shot them in the belly, everything came out.

Fahad’s family sold its plot of land to come up with the $3,800 that would finally free him to move onward to the Libyan coast.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 65 percent of the 224,000 people who reached the southern shores of Europe in the first seven months of the year were from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Somalia. Many of them have stories similar to the ones we’ve heard.

Stepped up search-and-rescue efforts in the Mediterranean have made a difference, but the EU should commit to sustaining such initiatives over the long term to avoid future deaths at sea. It also should shift its focus from trying to prevent or discourage people attempting to make the dangerous crossing, and acknowledge the human rights violations driving dangerous migration — particularly after July’s record-breaking 110,000 refugee arrivals.

EU leaders have endorsed a “European Agenda on Migration.” If implemented fully — and more generously — the plan could help ensure safer access to international protection in the EU. However, most of the agenda involves reinforcing measures to limit arrivals, rather than create more safe and legal channels into European Union countries.

In July, EU countries pledged to resettle more than 22,500 recognized refugees from other regions of the world, an increase over the commission’s proposal of 20,000, and a big improvement over the mere 8,579 resettled by combined 28 EU member states in 2014. Even so, the new pledge is makes up less than 20 percent of the UN refugee agency’s estimated global resettlement needs for 2015. The truth is that there is little appetite for helping those in need by, say, facilitating family reunification, or increasing the use of humanitarian visas to enable people to travel lawfully to the EU to apply for asylum or other forms of protection.

There are no easy solutions here. But EU leaders should endorse measures to increase safe and legal channels into the EU and ensure decent and fair treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, in every country in the union.

They should also ensure that all measures to combat irregular migration are grounded in respect for human rights and dignity, including the right to leave one’s own country, the right to seek asylum and protection against receiving countries returning anyone to a country where their lives or freedoms may be at risk.

Over the long term, the EU and other receiving countries as well should use their influence and resources more effectively to address the major drivers of migration, including systematic human rights violations, poverty, inequitable development, weak governance and violent conflict and lawlessness.

As 21-year-old Asmeron said when we asked him why he left Eritrea, “With no rights, it’s difficult to stay.”

Judith Sunderland is associate director for Europe at Human Rights Watch and author of “The Mediterranean Migration Crisis: Why People Flee, What the EU Should Do,” published in June.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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