Mediterranean 'world's deadliest border' for migrants, says UN

More than 33,000 people have died attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean since 2000, according to a UN study. With routes between Turkey and Europe blocked, pressure has increased on the route to Italy.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Friday said the Mediterranean Sea remains "by far the world's deadliest border," with more than 33,000 migrants dying in the attempt to make the dangerous crossing since 2000. 

Although the number of deaths has dropped since record arrivals on European soil from 2014 to 2016, the risk of death during the journey has risen significantly, according to a UN report published by the IOM.

A controversial migrant deal with Turkey and naval blockades by Libya's coastguard have made the journey across the Mediterranean more dangerous as it shifted the route towards the longer central crossing to Italy, said Philippe Fargues, one of the UN report's authors and professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

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"Shutting the shorter and less dangerous routes can open longer and more dangerous routes, thus increasing the likelihood of dying at sea," said Fargues.

"Cooperation with Turkey to stem irregular flows is now being replicated with Libya, the main country of departure of migrants smuggled along the central route. However, such an approach is not only morally reprehensible but likely to be unsuccessful, given the content of extremely poor governance, instability and political fragmentation in Libya."


Fleeing war and poverty

In late 2014, with the war in Syria approaching its fourth year and Islamic State making gains in the north of the country, the exodus of Syrians intensified. At the same time, others were fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Niger and Kosovo.


Seeking refuge over the border

Vast numbers of Syrian refugees had been gathering in border-town camps in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan since 2011. By 2015, with the camps full to bursting and residents often unable to find work or educate their children, more and more people decided to seek asylum further afield.


A long journey on foot

In 2015 an estimated 1.5 million people made their way on foot from Greece towards western Europe via the "Balkan route". The Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel within much of the EU, was called into question as refugees headed towards the wealthier European nations.


Desperate sea crossings

Tens of thousands of refugees were also attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats. In April 2015, 800 people of various nationalities drowned when a boat traveling from Libya capsized off the Italian coast. This was to be just one of many similar tragedies - by the end of the year, nearly 4,000 refugees were reported to have died attempting the crossing.


Pressure on the borders

Countries along the EU's external border struggled to cope with the sheer number of arrivals. Fences were erected in Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia and Austria. Asylum laws were tightened and several Schengen area countries introduced temporary border controls.


Closing the open door

Critics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open-door" refugee policy claimed it had made the situation worse by encouraging more people to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe. By September 2016, Germany had also introduced temporary checks on its border with Austria.


Striking a deal with Turkey

In early 2016, the EU and Turkey signed an agreement under which refugees arriving in Greece could be sent back to Turkey. The deal has been criticised by human rights groups and came under new strain following a vote by the European Parliament in November to freeze talks on Turkey's potential accession to the EU.


No end in sight

With anti-immigration sentiment in Europe growing, governments are still struggling to reach a consensus on how to handle the continuing refugee crisis. Attempts to introduce quotas for the distribution of refugees among EU member states have largely failed. Conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere show no signs coming to an end, and the death toll from refugee sea crossings is on the rise.

Increased economic migration

More than 161,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe this year, with 75 percent of them arriving in Italy via the central route. In 2015, the EU witnessed a sharp rise in migrants entering the bloc, many of them refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, with Germany receiving nearly 900,000 people.

However, authorities estimated that less than a third of the migrants arriving in Italy this year are seeking refuge, pointing to an increase in economic migrants, Fargues said. The major groups of migrants in the EU this year come from Nigeria, Eritrea and Guinea.

Many of those arriving from sub-Saharan Africa have left their countries due to issues arising from "population growth coupled with limited livelihood opportunities, high unemployment and poor governance and political and economic instability," IOM said.

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Nearly 3,000 migrants have died attempting to make the crossing this year. While the figure is likely to increase before the end of the year, it is significantly less than last year, which witnessed 4,757 deaths on the Mediterranean.

Infografik verstorbene Migranten Mittelmeer 2014-2016 Englisch

Into the woods

A small group of Afghan teenagers, fearful of being followed by police, set off on the roughly 12-kilometer (seven mile) hike along roads and the dangerous mountain tracks of the Death Pass to France.


A treacherous route

Migrants and refugees cross the border between the town of Ventimiglia in Italy and Menton in France by walking through the highway tunnels or along railroad tracks or by climbing over the rocky mountain. Whichever way they choose, the journey is sometimes fatal.


High speeds, low visibility

Many migrants and refugees access the highway that leads to France at this fence. From here they risk their lives walking through the tunnel.


Relying on nature

Those who opt for the Death Pass generally set off without knowing the route or carrying supplies of food or water.


Out with the old

Old farmers' storehouses are used by refugees and migrants as shelter, to rest or to wait for nightfall before they cross the mountain. Worn clothes are left behind when they change into fresh clothes, hoping that a tidy appearance will help them avoid getting caught by the French police.


'Peace' signals the way

A "pace" flag hanging from the border fence between Italy and France indicates where people can squeeze through. The French government erected the fence after World War II to stop Italian immigration.


Charting a path

The teenagers survey the route down to Menton. The highest point of the Death Pass is nearly 300 meters (985 feet). Often the migrants and refugees are caught once they make it to France and sent back to Italy.

ls/jm (Reuters, dpa, AFP)