Life and death on the Mediterranean

Jun 20, 2017 · 4 min read

Six months in 60 minutes — a data visualization

By Sarah Murphy

Photo: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

It may not be in the headlines as often these days, but the Mediterranean migrant and refugee crisis is anything but over.

The data* playing out on this Facebook Live covers the whole Mediterranean Sea. But the truth is, nearly all of the activity — both sea arrivals to Europe and especially deaths at sea — is happening on the so-called “Central Mediterranean route,” that perilous stretch of water between Libya and Italy.

In fact, more than 95% of migrant and refugee deaths across the Mediterranean Sea are taking place along this particular waterway.

Here are some important points to keep in mind:

  • With 5,096 recorded deaths, 2016 was the deadliest year on record for migrants and refugees traversing the Mediterranean.
  • In 2016, there were 4,581 deaths on the Central Mediterranean route. Another 434 refugees and migrants lost their lives on the so-called “Eastern Mediterranean” route, from Turkey over to Greece.
  • About one in every 36 migrants and refugees who attempt the Central Mediterranean route will die at sea.
  • Deaths on the Central Mediterranean are steadily rising. Three of the first five months in 2017 saw higher death tolls than in 2016.
  • More refugees and migrants are attempting the dangerous journey along the Central Mediterranean route this year compared to last year.

So why isn’t the Mediterranean crisis on the front pages anymore?

The short answer is, since the EU-Turkey deal went into effect in March 2016, the Eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece has seen significantly less activity. About 7,700 people arrived in Greece by sea between January 1 and June 11 of this year, compared to a whopping 152,250 arrivals via this route during the same period last year. This also means fewer dramatic arrival scenes on Greek beaches.

Cut to the Central Mediterranean, where the action continues

On the Central Mediterranean, the number of people attempting the journey — and the number of people dying in the process — has not slowed down.

So far in 2017, we’ve seen about 23% more arrivals in Italy via the Central Mediterranean route than we did during the same period last year. And the death toll is not improving: three of the first five months in 2017 had higher death tolls than in 2016. Discounting a series of drownings in May 2016, the death toll would actually be higher in 2017 — and there’s still a busy summer ahead.

So why is the death toll so high on the Central Mediterranean?

According to Victoria Russell of Doctors Without Borders, which operates a search and rescue mission on this route, several things are happening:

  • Smugglers are increasingly pushing boats into the water during poor weather, when sea conditions are more dangerous.
  • In an effort to evade anti-smuggling efforts, smugglers are pushing greater numbers of migrant boats into the sea all at once. This makes it more difficult for search and rescue operations to save every over-packed migrant boat among a cluster of such vessels in distress.
  • Hardly seaworthy to begin with, the migrant boats now being used are of even worse quality than before.

And what’s life like for migrants in Libya?

Testimonials from rescued migrants and refugees, along with reports from human rights groups, paint a grim picture of migrants and refugees in Libya.

Armed groups and competing powers operate across the country, which lacks any central government with significant territorial control. And even if Libya did have a functioning government, the country is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Kidnapping by armed groups, forced labor, frequent sexual assault and other horrors plague migrants and refugees in Libya before they even reach the Mediterranean waters.

And many of those who voluntarily embark on a journey to Libya may find themselves transformed into human cargo by traffickers.

In February, EU leaders agreed to give $215M to Libya in an effort to stem migration toward Europe. The aid package included training for Libya’s coast guard.

But NGOs and rights groups said the deal would only trap migrants and refugees in already inhumane conditions.

*The data you’re seeing in this Facebook Live broadcast comes from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The reported incidents of deaths are all collated on the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project. But we know there are many more deaths than the ones represented here — no one knows how many boats go missing, or how many people drown with no witnesses.

For the arrivals statistics, we took each month’s reported total sea arrivals and divided them to get a daily average. The numbers come from figures reported by EU state agencies to the IOM.

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