Stuck between a rock and a hard place: the plight of the Central Mediterranean Crossing.
When Alan Kurdi, a two year old Syrian child, washed up, drowned on Mediterranean shores in 2015, his image triggered international shockwaves. The image of the helpless little boy came to symbolise the height of Europe’s migrant crisis. Seven years on, a shipwreck scattered the Calabrian coast in February 2023. It cost the lives of 72 Afghan and Iranian refugees, yet the scale of human death was saturated in a sea of anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians across Europe. In spite of years of declarations that the crisis is being tackled, tragedy continues to unfold on a daily basis. It points to a failure to tackle the core issues which drive irregular immigration - a lack of safe routes, poverty, conflict, and climate change.
One of the most contentious migration routes runs between Tunisia, Libya, and Italy. The sea crossing between Tunisia and Italy was popularised in the early 1990s. Squeezed into overloaded fishing vessels or dinghies, it takes migrants 10 hours to arrive at the small Italian island of Lampedusa, or 3 days to Sicily. Since the 1990s, people smuggling between North Africa and Italy has become increasingly professionalised in spite of accords between countries to quell the flow of migrants, and increasingly hostile policies.
Migrants are denied basic safety in their passage to Europe. Bad weather and shallow waters make for a dangerous crossing. The UN estimate that over 300 people have already died this year in the Mediterranean. Migrants, including infants, are packed into dinghies or 5-6 metre wooden fishing vessels. The boats are often not supplied with enough fuel for crossings and engines often stop before land is reached. These conditions culminate in a high risk of capsize and shipwreck.
If the journey is survived, human needs are not met on board either. Large waves and the potent stench of engine fumes make seasickness rife. Migrants travel with minimal preparations for the journey which often takes longer than expected. They may undergo days without food and water which leaves people vulnerable to the dangerous waters, and abuse from smugglers.
In spite of these conditions, migrants show powerful determination to reach their destination. However, this drive to reach Europe is fueled by a sinister danger in returning to the African continent: in an interview by Al Jezeera, refugees say they would rather die than go back to Libya. Criminal gangs have been known to exploit vulnerable refugees who have failed to make the crossing. Al Jezeera heard accounts of torture and refugees being sold to slavery. One migrant told the camera that a goat is more expensive than a human in Libya.
It is not only the fear of return which drives these migrants to desperate measures. It is the promise of a new life on a continent rumoured to offer social, political, and economic autonomy. For many, arrival in Europe is synonymous with achieving self-transcendence – it offers a higher quality of life, job opportunities, and resident friends and family. When Medicin Sans Frontieres workers tell rescued refugees that Italian authorities have granted them the right to dock, the crowd erupts into a sea of shouting and moshing. Videos have materialised of migrants jumping off their search-and-rescue vessel during a two week stand-off with the Italian government, risking their lives by swimming to shore. In these drastic measures to reach Italian shores safety is sacrificed for a new life of security, identity, and acceptance.
The Central Mediterranean Crossing is not the only odyssey across treacherous conditions. Within the continent, many Sub-Saharan, and West Africans undergo a lesser publicised journey across the desert to reach North Africa. Again, safety is sacrificed for long-term goals across dangerous, arid roads in overloaded lorries. Migrants have been known to fall off, becoming stranded in the barren Sahara. In a 2008 survey 36% of migrants said they had seen death or skeletons in the desert. 36% of female migrants had been raped.
Yet the threat of abuse and dangerous natural landscapes do not stop migrants. Instead, their human desperation to cross natural and artificial obstacles forms a lucrative business for the illegal smuggling industry. They charge large sums for migrants to cross the desert and the sea. Smugglers pounce upon the psychological determination of migrants to reach their destination in spite of physical obstacles. Many migrants are pushed to their destination by pressure from family, threat of conflict, and smuggler payments. Migrants are commodified in their journey, treated as objects to be transported, rather than people with basic human needs.
Many migrants settle permanently or temporarily in North Africa because they must work to pay smuggler fees. As a result of these fees, only a minority of migrants attempt the Central Mediterranean Crossing. In fact, merely 15% of migration to the West is illegal - the rest is legal. Many migrate for increased economic opportunities, with educated and skilled workers attracted to a higher standard of life in Algeria, Libya, and Europe.
Yet in recent times settling permanently or temporarily in North Africa, especially Tunisia, has become increasingly dangerous for black migrants. Tunisia’s President Kais Saied presented his extremely hostile policy in a speech on 21 February, 2023. Saied said the Arab-Muslim demography of Tunisia was under threat from an influx of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa using Tunisia as a ‘jumping off point’ to the EU. There are 21,000 black migrants within the population of 12 million. Nesrine Malik believes Saied has created a ‘manufactured crisis’, sparking hysteria throughout the country which has devastating human impacts.
Black migrants are being evicted from their homes, and their children seized from nursery. With their safety under threat, many have been forced to camp outside the International Organization for Migration in Tunis to seek protection. One student reports that he left school and locked himself in his house to avoid the threat of violence, living in fear. The crisis is so severe that Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea have offered repatriation flights. However, many migrants have nothing to return to and are threatened with a social cost - returning in debt to hopeful families.
The threat of violence and failure of Tunisian authorities to grant migrants safety or acceptance fuels and emphasises a socio-political drive to enter Europe. Many migrants hope they will find acceptance in Europe. However, it has become increasingly clear that Italian enforcement of harsh borders has had calamitous effects on migrants undergoing an already dangerous odyssey. Giorgia Meloni’s authorities have delayed their intervention in capsizing vessels. They have been slow to launch search-and-rescue teams, or direct merchant vessels to crisis points. This delay has resulted in mounting migrant deaths day-upon-day. In the capsize of a migrant vessel in March 2023 where 30 people were reported missing, neither the Italian coast guard was directed to the operation, nor merchant vessels instructed to intervene in appropriate time.
Why is the media swarmed by incessant reports of the Mediterranean’s danger, the exploitation of migrants by people smuggling gangs, and the drowning of swathes of migrants hoping to find new lives if governments insist they are solving the crisis? The Italian government repeatedly contends that they are acting, yet deaths keep coming. Their harsh borders are prioritised over empathy for basic human needs of migrants. The Italian government is emerging in a Europe-wide pattern of increased hostility. They have been left, displaced, between two hostile countries and a wildly dangerous sea. The contention of keeping migrants out through harsh borders allow Meloni’s administration to turn a blind eye in the face of drowning men, women, and children.
Flora is a third year Music student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.