With just over two months left to go, 2016 is already the deadliest year on record for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean. According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees:
UNHCR reported that 3,740 lives had been lost so far in 2016, just short of the 3,771 reported for the whole of 2015.
“This is the worst we have ever seen,” UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told a press briefing in Geneva. “From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiralled to one in 88.”
Spindler said the high loss of life takes place despite a large overall fall this year in the number of people seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Last year at least 1,015,078 people made the crossing. This year so far, crossings stand at 327,800.
“Between Libya and Italy the likelihood of dying is even higher, at one death for every 47 arrivals,” he added, referring to what is called the Central Mediterranean route.
And that fact—the greater deadliness of the Libyan crossing, compared to the eastern route from Turkey to Greece—explains the uptick in deaths even given the downturn in crossings. The Turkey deal, warts and all, seems to be holding, and so crossings between Turkey and the Greek isles are down. But that very success is pushing people toward Libya, and the more dangerous crossing there.
Other factors are compounding the tragedy. The enormous demographic pressure from Africa shows no sign of abating. Millions and millions sub-Saharan Africans live in conditions that we would consider per se inhumane. (This blurs the refugee-migrant distinction, among other problems; what do you do with someone who’s not fleeing a war zone but rather somewhere like The Gambia?) And because of social media, they can see more clearly than ever the enormous differences in life in Europe, and see too friends or family who’ve been able to make it there and stay.
Meanwhile, Europe’s attempts to raise a coast guard and border patrol and enforce its borders remain incomplete at best. So while the “welcome culture” is by no means as uniform as it was a year or two ago, the era of “if you survive, you can stay” still persists.
But by far the biggest problem, and the key to this whole mess, is the broken state of Libya. There is not even an Erdogan there, a strongman who, if an imperfect and even extortionate partner, can at least make and (mostly) enforce deals that would cut down on the crossings. So long as Libya continues to be a festering mess, the crossings, the deaths (not just in the Med, but on the way north through the desert from subsaharan Africa), and the political destabilization of Europe will continue.