Imagine the Mariel Boat Lift, yet far, far deadlier:
The Mediterranean mass migration crisis

The 35th anniversary of the Mariel Boat Lift is a fitting moment to better understand the extraordinary scale of the migration crisis overwhelming the Mediterranean today.


TODAY MARKS THE 35TH ANNIVERSARY of the Mariel Boat Lift. On April 20, 1980, then-President Fidel Castro officially sanctioned the departure of thousands Cubans who had been massing around the port of Mariel to migrate to the United States.

It was an extraordinary undertaking, utilizing everything from dinghies to sailing vessels to car ferries. By the time it was over, approximately 125,000 Cubans made the crossing to south Florida. And despite the fact that sailing across open water always assumes a certain amount of risk, less than 30 people are believed to have perished.

That’s less than a fraction of a fraction of 1% of those who participated in the Mariel Boat Lift. And the vast majority of those who made it to Florida were granted political asylum, free to begin a new life in the U.S.

The fishing boat Americana loaded with refugees during the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980. From the Dale McDonald Collection, courtesy of Key West Public Library.

FLASH FORWARD to another extraordinary wave of migration: the perilous trip that countless migrants are currently making across the Mediterranean.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 13,500 people were rescued last week by the Italian coast guard, including 3,000 migrants last Monday alone. Before the week was out, 400 people went missing and are presumed dead after a double-decker boat capsized after making sail from Libya. And yesterday came the horrific news that as many as 650 migrants perished in a capsizing incident north of Libya (Update: some reports suggest it might be as many as 900 deaths, but we’re awaiting further sourcing on that claim.) These two capsizing disasters would bring this year’s death toll to more than 1,600 migrants — compared to 47 migrant fatalities this time last year.


A perilous distance with intense currents

To get a sense of the scale of the current crisis, it’s useful to look at aspects of it through the lens of the Mariel Boat Lift.

First, there’s the issue of distance. In 1980, boats departing from Miami reached landfall in various parts of South Florida, but the most straightforward route from Mariel, Cuba was to reach Key West, Florida.

From Mariel to Key West, it’s a distance of approximately 108 nautical miles. And as you can see on this map, it’s not even the shortest route to Key West. As the crow flies, Havana would’ve made for a shorter departure, but vessels needed to take into account the currents of the Florida Straits, which move from west to east. Either way, Mariel was a key point of departure 35 years ago.

Contrast that with one of the most common crossings for migrants coming from North Africa, which begins along the coast of Libya and ends on the southern coast of Sicily, Italy:

At nearly 250 nautical miles, this crossing is well more than twice as far as the crossing between Cuba to Key West. The 108 nautical miles to Key West wouldn’t even get you from Libya to Malta.

The currents of the Mediterranean don’t help, either. While there’s a certain consistency to the Florida Straits — the Florida Current runs west to east at a couple of knots per hour, eventually merging into the current known as the Gulf Stream. The Mediterranean, however, is full of crosscurrents and eddies, as seen in this deceptively gorgeous animation from NASA:

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

The Libyan coast is in the bottom left of the image. Sicily, of course, is the island that looks like it’s about to be kicked by Italy’s boot. For migrants making sail from Libya to Italy, the currents aren’t working in their favor.

Migrants wait to board a ship on February 20, 2015 in Lampedusa, Italy. Hundreds of migrants recently arrived in Lampedusa after fleeing the attacks by ISIS in Libya. The Temporary Permanence Centre (CPT) of Lampedusa, which was designed to accommodate 250 people, currently holds about 300 migrants following Sunday’s rescue of 2,000 in the Mediterranean Sea, between the island of Lampedusa and the Libyan coast. 900 migrants have been transferred to another centre and the emergency situation is now over. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)

Imagine the Mariel Boat Lift, again.
And again. And again.

A Cuban man wipes away tears after making a successful journey to Key West during the Mariel Boat Lift. Courtesy the Florida Memory project and the State Library and Archives of Florida.

Now let’s consider the numbers. During the Mariel Boat Lift between April 15 and Oct. 31 of 1980, approximately 125,000 Cubans made the voyage to the U.S. That’s approximately 625 migrants per day coming in by boat.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 219,000 migrants made their way by boat from North Africa to Southern Europe in 2014. That averages to 600 people per day — fairly comparable to the Mariel Boat Lift average of 625 people per day. But the ongoing migration across the Mediterranean hasn’t stopped; it’s like Mariel has repeated itself twice over the course of 18 months. The numbers of boats in distress have left the navies of Italy and Greece stretched to their breaking point, not to mention aid agencies like UNHCR and the Red Cross trying to assist the migrants upon being rescued.

Then there’s the death toll. As you’ll recall, less than 30 people perished during the Mariel Boat Lift. In the Mediterranean, we’ve tallied approximately 1,600 deaths for 2015, and we’re just half-way through April.

According to UNHCR, approximately 3,500 migrants died in 2014 while making the sea journey between North Africa and Europe. Factor in the 1,600+ believed to have died so far this year, and we reach a migrant death toll of more than 5,100 people in less than 16 months — an average of around 10 deaths per day. So if you take the entire death toll resulting from the Mariel Boat Lift, it basically represents the equivalent of less than three days’ worth of deaths on the Mediterranean last year. Three days.

Given the current rate of people attempting to make the crossing, it’s entirely conceivable that this year’s migration and death tolls could surpass that of 2014. That would be the equivalent of four Mariel Boat Lifts over the course of two years, but with more than 175 times the number of deaths at sea.

A boat cemetery in Lampedusa, Italy, where the shells of abandoned migrant vessels scorch under the Mediterranean sun. (Antonio Zanghì/Demotix)

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS to the day that Castro told Cubans that they could leave their country, the phrase Mariel Boat Lift remains engrained in America’s collective memory as a mass migration of extraordinary proportions, unlike almost anything else in modern U.S. history. And yet today, migrants are making a journey across the Mediterranean at the same scale of Mariel as if it were repeating over and over, but with much deadlier consequences and no end in sight.

What do you call this modern-day Mariel Boat Lift? A catastrophe of almost unfathomable proportions.

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