More than 2,500 migrants have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean this year trying to reach Europe, Amnesty International said in a report this week, citing data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
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All the victims, including those from the Gaza Strip, have left from North Africa.
Amnesty accuses the European Union of ignoring the migrants’ plight. John Dalhuisen, the organization’s director for Europe and Central Asia, has called on European countries to send boats to pick up the migrants rather than leave them to the mercy of smugglers and the sea.
This year, 13,000 migrants have reached Europe by sea from Africa, most of them landing in Italy after being picked up by the Italian navy — and in some cases being saved from drowning. Most left from Libya, where a civil war is still raging.
Between 1998 and 2013, about 623,100 migrants are thought to have reached Europe, about 40,000 a year. Between 1988 and September this year, about 21,300 are thought to have drowned at sea in an effort to reach Europe.
Amnesty is calling for increased humanitarian aid and greater efforts to reunite families, as well as easier entry for migrants from disaster areas and regions afflicted by war and oppression. The organization says a lack of coordination between Italy and Malta is preventing the assistance of many hundreds of people.
The report features testimony from 250 migrants who reached Italy and Malta. For example, a 22-year-old Syrian man who traveled from Damascus to Libya joined hundreds of other migrants in small boats, from which they were taken to a larger ship. He said about 400 migrants, including about 100 children, were jammed into an unseaworthy vessel; he did not want to board but was threatened at gunpoint.
About two hours into the journey, the ship came under fire from smugglers on another vessel; in the morning he and others jumped ship with life preservers in the hope of being picked up at sea. Many others drowned, he said, but he was picked up by the Italian navy.
The Arab press has highlighted the stories of Gazans on smugglers’ ships that sank. The smugglers are reportedly only worried about their profits from the trip from the Rafah crossing to the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. The smugglers need to evade roadblocks set up by the Egyptian police.
The stories detail the suffocating conditions on the vessels and the perils the migrants face before they reach Europe. Migrants reportedly pay between $3,500 and $4,000 per person for the trip from Gaza.
Italy has become the major gateway for migrants leaving Africa due to its long coast and the nearby Italian islands of Sicily and Lampedusa. According to the Italians, during the summer an average of about 2,000 migrants reach Italy as smugglers take advantage of the good weather. In the summer, the ships are particularly rickety.
In any case, the future that awaits those who reach Europe is not always rosy. This week, an Italian who heads a group that assists Egyptian migrants told Egyptian newspaper Al Watan about the migrants’ plight. Most earn money as waiters, construction workers, drivers or in similar jobs, and efforts have heightened in recent months to return migrants to their countries of origin.
The wave of migrants is a major concern for the Italian government, which is trying to address the situation through legislation and coordination with Mediterranean countries facing similar problems. Most migrants, sometimes with the help of smugglers, reach a third country like Sweden, a popular destination for Gazans.
Joblessness in Gaza is currently at about 45 percent. According to Palestinian Labor Minister Mamoun Abu Shahla, 160,000 people are unemployed in the Strip, most of them young.
Some are looking for any way out of Gaza, even at risk to their lives. One Gazan whose brother reached Sweden last month via Italy said his brother had finished computer studies in Gaza four years ago but has no prospect of finding work.
“In Gaza, there is no future for young people, so he looked for any possible way to get out of here,” the Gazan said. “Without a doubt, he took a risk, but for many young people, it’s better to die at sea than to suffocate in Gaza.”