Less than two months after one of the deadliest shipwrecks in decades, a new shipwreck off the coast of Italy this past week has left 41 migrants feared dead.
Four survivors of the shipwreck told Italian authorities that the boat they were on was originally carrying 45 people before it capsized during the journey, according to ANSA, an Italian news service. The boat reportedly set off on August 3 from Sfax, a city on the Tunisian coast, which has become one of the main departure points for migrants seeking to reach Europe. The surviving passengers were from Ivory Coast and Guinea, according to aid officials.
The tragic incident adds to hundreds of migrant deaths via shipwreck in the last year — as the number of people seeking asylum in Europe after being forced to flee conflict and poverty in their home countries grows. Off the coast of Greece in June, as many as 700 migrants may have died at sea.
About 121,000 people have arrived by sea to Europe as of August 6, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM). This is high for recent years — though all crossings into Europe declined during the Covid-19 pandemic — but remains below the more than 1 million refugees who attempted to reach Europe by sea in 2015.
Fatalities and missing persons in the Mediterranean Sea — a route that’s typically used to go from North Africa to Europe — have nearly doubled compared to last year, climbing higher than 1,800 people, according to IOM. (More than 2,300 migrants in total have died or gone missing on the way to Europe so far in 2023; for all of 2016, more than 5,000 people perished or disappeared.) The recent uptick is due to a host of factors, including a surge in migrants from Libya and Tunisia to Italy; traffickers putting people on unstable iron vessels; and insufficient resources dedicated to rescue efforts by European governments.
Ultimately, many migrants are choosing this risky avenue because of the limited legal pathways available to them in order to otherwise immigrate to Italy and other EU countries. The journey across the Mediterranean is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.
“As the EU has increasingly closed off established … migration travel routes to the community and countries that were once fairly generous in accepting asylum and refugees, [like] Sweden, become less welcoming, potential migrants have been diverted into ever more dangerous routes by which to try to gain entry into Europe,” Anthony Messina, a Trinity College political science professor that studies migration policy, told Vox. “The consequences have been more perilous journeys and, inevitably, more migrant deaths.”
At the same time, the European Union has struggled to put forth a coherent immigration policy that offers legal pathways for migrants and instead many countries have focused on proposals aimed at strengthening their borders. There have been disputes, too, over which countries need to allocate resources for rescue efforts, leading some, including Greece, to abandon this responsibility in certain instances. Among countries like Greece and Italy, which receive a larger number of migrants by sea, there’s also been frustration that other European countries haven’t chipped in to help shoulder the financial and structural demands. Collectively, these issues have contributed to a dearth of support for potential rescues and few safe channels for migrants to consider.
“The devastating rise in deaths in the Mediterranean is not simply down to more people making crossings,” says Josie Naughton, the head of a UK-based nonprofit called Choose Love dedicated to providing refugee aid. “The culpability lies with policies that by design — such as the criminalization of rescue boats — deny that every human life is worth saving.”
Why Europe’s immigration policy is failing migrants
A big reason more migrants are using this dangerous route along the Mediterranean Sea is because it’s the main option available to them. “Investing in legal pathways … is the only sustainable solution to save lives,” EU Home Commissioner Ylva Johansson said at a press conference earlier this year.
The EU has struggled to find a balanced and humane approach to migration, since 2015 and 2016, when Europe saw a record number of arrivals from places like Syria and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Some countries warmly welcomed refugees at first, but it did not last, especially as far-right parties fed a populist backlash.
EU asylum-seekers must typically apply for asylum in the “first safe” country they reach, which often means countries on the EU’s land and sea edges — Italy and Greece, but also places like Poland. Those countries tend to see many more arrivals, and often argue they do not have the resources to accept so many people. At times, some of the countries on the EU’s borders have sought to tighten restrictions and enforcement, sometimes illegally pushing back migrants. These border countries have also accused some inland countries of forcing the costs of providing support and processing those arrivals onto them, while offering no other solution. (The exception to these variations and political hesitance has been for Ukrainian arrivals, for whom the EU adopted special emergency rules.)
“Despite years of effort in trying to forge a common immigration and asylum policy, the EU is still far short of achieving this objective,” Messina told Vox. “Current immigration policy across the EU is still mostly within the policymaking jurisdiction and purview of national governments, which results in uneven and often haphazard approaches to addressing the thorny challenges of irregular migration and mass immigration generally.”
EU countries also have uneven approaches when it comes to how committed they are to rescuing migrants at sea, another factor that likely contributes to fatalities. One New York Times report, for example, examined a video which showed Greece abandoning migrants at sea. And earlier this year, Greece claimed that a boat carrying hundreds of migrants steadily declined aid until shortly before sinking later in the day.
“It is deeply alarming and disappointing that EU countries are trying to abdicate to their duties to rescue people in distress at sea under international law,” a Human Rights Watch spokesperson previously told CNN.
But, ultimately, the EU would prefer if migrants did not attempt to come at all.
In mid-July, the EU and Tunisia inked a deal to try to shrink the numbers of people attempting to cross from North Africa into Europe. The agreement had a lot of nice-sounding things — EU investments in trade and support for a green energy transition, for example.
Yet it was pretty straightforward: the EU was about to give Tunisia a lot of money to increase security along its sea borders and derail the smuggler networks. “In exchange for one billion euros, Tunisia is now supposed to become a new border guard for the EU,” explained EU migration experts Sarah Wolff and Florian Trauner in a recent blog post.
Europe has made similar deals, with Turkey, in 2016, and Libya, offering billions in economic aid in exchange for these countries to stop or intercept migrants. Sea crossings to Europe are undeniably dangerous, but these deals often outsource migration enforcement to countries with questionable human rights records. In Libya, in particular, human rights groups have documented an astonishing record of abuses in migrant detention centers, including torture, killings, and sexual assault. The UN has found evidence of migrants being forcibly repatriated, an alarming departure from human and asylum-rights protections.
Tunisia is the latest troubling example of the EU’s questionable bargain. The country is a place in the region to escape to, and one of those places people are trying to escape from. Tunisian President Kais Saied has been aggressively unraveling his country’s democracy in recent years, and has implemented overtly racist policies against sub-Saharan Africans, which has hastened their exodus from Tunisia. “The decision shows no lessons have been learned from previous similar agreements. This makes the European Union complicit in the suffering that will inevitably result,” Amnesty International said in a statement after the Tunisia deal.
Part of the problem is the EU is still grappling with how to reform and remake its own “migration pact.” Most recently, the EU is trying to strike a somewhat middle ground. Border states would institute stricter border policies, especially for those people unlikely to be eligible for asylum, while also more speedily rejecting these applicants. Other countries would have to either agree to accept a certain number of asylum-seekers, or they would pay into a joint fund.
The deal hasn’t been finalized, and political disagreements on certain measures remain. But many advocates point out that this may appease internal EU politics — especially the far-right governments, like those in Italy — but it doesn’t at all address the humanitarian and human rights concerns around those seeking to cross to the EU. Nothing about these rules will stop people dying in the Mediterranean.
And it’s not clear what will. Even if Tunisia can curtail the number of boats leaving, it may come with unintended and equally troubling humanitarian costs. The politics of migration in Europe are only going to get more difficult as European parliament elections approach next year, where a populist and generally more Euro-skeptic far-right could use migration to try to more broadly reshape the EU. As that plays out, thousands and thousands of migrants seeking asylum may still see their only option as a perilous sea crossing.