7 questions you might have about refugees and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean

With around 1,700 refugees and migrants feared drowned so far this year, a humanitarian emergency is unfolding in the Mediterranean. While EU leaders work out how to deal with it, we look at why this is happening, and what we can do to help.

Photo: Amnesty activists protest against migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, Brighton, UK, 22 April 2015. © Amnesty International

1. Why are so many people drowning in the Mediterranean?

Record numbers of refugees and migrants have tried to reach Europe so far this year, travelling in overcrowded, dangerous boats controlled by unscrupulous people smugglers.

When their boats capsize or run into trouble, there isn’t always someone around to help. At the end of 2014, Italy and the EU decided to end the Italian Navy’s humanitarian operation, Mare Nostrum, which rescued over 166,000 people in one year.

The EU replaced it with a much smaller operation called Triton. It mainly focuses on patrolling borders close to land, rather than saving lives in the open sea. It also has smaller boats and fewer planes, helicopters and people available.

As a result, finding and rescuing people again falls mostly to coastguards and commercial ships.

2. Why do people travel on the world’s most deadly migration route?

Europe has become an almost impenetrable fortress. It is now extremely difficult for refugees to reach an EU country safely and legally.

Many people are fleeing conflict, poverty, violence and persecution. For them, paying a smuggler thousands of dollars to cross the sea in a broken dinghy is just about the only option left.

Making this terrible choice says a lot about what people are running away from. Jean was one of 88 survivors from a boat rescued near Malta in January. Around 35 or his fellow passengers died, including from hypothermia and dehydration. He told us he fled the Ivory Coast after his family threatened him because he didn’t want his daughter to undergo female genital mutilation.

Once he arrived in Libya, “The smugglers were armed. Some of us were scared and did not want to go, but nobody could turn back. They gave us no maps, nothing. They just said: go straight ahead and that’s Italy!”

Not doing enough to help right now is inhumane and indefensible, equivalent to pulling up the drawbridge while children, men and women die outside our walls.

Amnesty International

3. Where exactly are all these people coming from?

Many – including families with young children – have escaped war-torn countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. Others have been persecuted for their political opinions, tortured or even threatened with death if they stay.

In 2014, Syrians and Eritreans represented almost half of the 170,000 or so people who reached Italy by boat. Yet more are sub-Saharan Africans fleeing hardships and poverty.

4. Why should Europe help?

European governments are facing a stark life and death choice. Not doing enough to help right now is inhumane and indefensible, equivalent to pulling up the drawbridge while children, men and women die outside our walls.

Seeking asylum is a human right – an essential part of international refugee agreements that almost all governments signed up to after World War II.

But European governments are making it incredibly hard for people who have already endured so much. For example, they have offered a total of just 40,137 resettlement places to Syrian refugees – 30,000 of which are in Germany alone. By contrast, just five countries near Syria have welcomed 3.9 million refugees.

5. What can the EU do right now to stop these deaths?

All European countries urgently need to work together to launch a humanitarian operation to rescue people at sea. That means sharing the cost of enough boats, airplanes, helicopters and staff to rescue the people expected to cross the Mediterranean from now on.

While that is being organized, they need to give Italy and Malta enough financial and logistical support to step up their coastguards’ ongoing search and rescue work.

6. What should happen in the long run?

People will not stop fleeing war, persecution and poverty. So when the EU sets out its new migration agenda in May, it needs to provide people with ways to seek asylum in Europe safely and legally, without risking their lives.

EU governments should also give more refugees the life-changing opportunity to resettle in their countries.

7. What can I do to help?

Please sign our new petition urging EU governments to give refugees safe passage to sanctuary. We have a duty to protect people fleeing bombs and persecution, and no one should have to die to reach safety.*

Find out more

7 things you probably didn’t know about migrants

*Please note this petition is now closed.