Everything Changes, But Nothing Changes At All
Refugees and migrants keep searching for an escape, and Europe keeps closing the doors. But underneath it all, the story stays the same.
As the stories of tragedy around the refugee crisis have become the new status quo, it’s easy to lose perspective on how much has changed in a short period of time.
The weekend of June 28, 2014—when the Ghost Boat disappeared—was an exceptionally busy one. The Italian navy mission, Mare Nostrum, had saved more than 5,000 lives in fewer than 48 hours. The sea was finally calm after a stretch of bad weather, and the warehouses run by Libya’s people smugglers were overflowing with their cargo: thousands of human beings fleeing war, repression and economic desperation.
According to family members of the Ghost Boat passengers who spoke with their relatives at that time, departure from Libya was continuously delayed due to stormy weather at sea. When it finally cleared, the smugglers wasted no time piling people onto rickety, overcrowded boats, using physical force to fill them far beyond capacity before pointing them towards Italy and sending them on their way.
The people sent out to sea that day came from all over. Some were fleeing Syria’s civil war, already three years old at that point. Others, like most of the Ghost Boat passengers, had escaped from the grip of Eritrea’s military dictatorship. Then there were those who had fled Somalia, crippled by decades of brutal fighting, while the various conflicts in Sudan had driven others from their homes. On top of this was another contingent: West Africans trying to escape extreme poverty in favor of economic opportunity in Europe.
That weekend’s surge was part of a record-setting summer. More than 200,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2014, and nearly all of them left from Libya headed for Italy. The previous high, set in 2011, was less than half that number.
But by the beginning of 2015 things were starting to change — and accelerate. Egypt and Algeria ended visa-free entry for Syrians, ending a major escape routes for those who would previously fly from Damascus, slip across borders and head for the Libyan coast. At the same time, Libya’s post-revolution transition spiralled further out of control into an ever more dangerous, confusing and intractable civil war. People were being pushed towards the east.
In 2014, fewer than 35,000 people reached Europe by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. As Libya became less accessible and more dangerous, Syrians began heading for the new, shorter and comparatively less deadly route. Four years of civil war had driven 3.8 million people from the country.
The vast majority initially sought refuge in countries bordering Syria — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. But as the refugees put pressure on already limited social services, drained government finances, drove up prices and stoked fears of a spillover, the already-tepid welcome they received from their host countries turned frosty.
By 2015, war weariness and intense fighting inside Syria also drove hundreds of thousands more from their homes. By the end of the year, half of Syria’s pre-war population was either internally displaced or had fled the country as refugees.
Many of those headed directly to the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece. They were joined by people fleeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conflicts and economic destitution in South Asia.
At first, the numbers increased steadily. Around 13,000 took the eastern route in April; 18,000 in May and 31,000 in June. And then, right around the time we launched the Ghost Boat investigation, they took off, skyrocketing to a staggering 211,000 people in October. That was more migrants in a single month than the combined total in all of the Mediterranean the previous year.
Women, children, men and families — some in wheelchairs or pregnant, others sporting still fresh wounds from the war that had driven them from their homes — disembarked by the thousands from overcrowded rubber boats on the idyllic beaches of the Greek Isles. Carrying their few possessions on their backs, more than 850,000 people set off to try and walk to safety and find the possibility of a future in northern Europe.
But, of course, there were the deaths.
The death rate in the eastern Mediterranean was proportionally low compared to the route between Libya and Italy. But the higher numbers of travellers meant that many lives were lost. Even though the distance that boats had to travel was often only around 10 miles, 806 people drowned in the sapphire blue waters of the Aegean. And when photographs began circulating of the lifeless body of three year old Alan Kurdi face down on a Turkish beach, the dangers involved in the journey were tragically underscored.
The events in the eastern Mediterranean overshadowed what was happening between Libya and Italy. Business there more or less proceeded as usual. More than 150,000 people crossed the central Mediterranean in 2015. Unlike the Aegean, the central route wasn’t dominated by a single nationality. But Eritreans, like the Ghost Boat passengers, continued to account for a sizeable number of the arrivals.
As the chaos in Libya continued, however, the country became an increasingly dangerous point of transit. Kidnappings, sexual assault, beatings, detention in abhorrent conditions, extortion and forced labor were already the norm for refugees and sub-Saharan Africans. But as the Islamic militant group ISIS gained a stronger foothold in Libya, it began kidnapping Eritreans—and particularly targeting Christian asylum seekers.
In August, the propaganda wing of ISIS released a video showing the beheading of dozens of Eritrean and Ethiopian Christians on a beach. When I met Eritrean asylum seekers at a transit shelter in Rome last November, several of them told stories of being captured and abused by the group.
Despite the danger, people from countries in East and West Africa continue to flock to Libya. Earlier this year, Interpol released a report saying that Libya has as many as 800,000 asylum seekers and migrants waiting to cross the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, another route from Egypt is reportedly becoming more popular, especially among Eritreans and others who want to avoid the danger and chaos in Libya.
The eastern Mediterranean route, on the other hand, has continued to be anything but normal. Tens of thousands of people were crossing the Aegean every week at the beginning of 2016, braving harsh winter weather. The influx prompted a rightwing backlash in European states, stemming from fears of terrorism and the idea that Europe‘s’ social fabric would be altered by the predominantly Muslim newcomers.
The initial welcome that had been extended, particularly by Germany, quickly ran out. As populist and ultra-nationalist parties gained ground in elections across the continent, the European Commission pushed for the closure of the Balkan route that led from Greece to northern Europe.
On March 8, after more than 1 million people had crossed the Aegean in just 14 months, the route snapped shut. Macedonia closed its southern border, stranding around 54,000 in Greece. Conditions in the informal refugee camps that sprang up were abysmal. Cases of cholera broke out among the more than 10,000 people camping in a muddy field in the Greek border town of Idomeni, and a picture spread on social media of the amniotic fluid being being washed off a newborn baby in a puddle of rainwater.
The following week, the EU signed a controversial deal with Turkey that called for all people arriving in the Greek Islands to be sent back. Refugees were no longer allowed to board ferries to mainland Greece, and those stuck on the islands were gradually rounded up and placed in overcrowded, open air detention centers to await deportation to Turkey.
Since mid-May, when a Greek appeals panel ruled that Turkey is not a safe third country for refugees, the fate of the deal — and the people stranded in Greece — has been thrust into a state of uncertainty. Still, the number of people crossing in the eastern Mediterranean has dropped precipitously. Fewer than 1,500 people made the journey in May. So far, there are no signs of Syrians, Iraqis or Afghans redirecting their route to Europe back through Libya.
As all of this has been happening, the tragedies have continued to mount. Since January 2014, nearly 10,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean.
Amid this panoply of suffering, the Ghost Boat still stands out as a unique kind of tragedy. It’s the only known incident where we still have no information about the fate of the people involved.
In other cases, there are bodies that remain at the bottom of the sea or that are interred in distant graveyards without being identified. But, at least it is clear that there was a shipwreck that took place.
Despite all of the unanswered questions that we are still grappling with, one thing is clear. As long as thousands of people continue to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety, the potential for other ghost boats will persist and the tragedy will inevitably go on.