[This is part 1 in a 2 part series on migrants in Europe]

Tragedy struck on Sunday, April 9 in the Mediterranean, in an event that may prove to be the worst refugee disaster in decades.

A ship carrying up to 900 refugees capsized after passengers swarmed to one side of the ramshackle boat to get the attention of a Portuguese merchant vessel. The traffickers allegedly kept many of the refugees locked in the lower decks, meaning that many of the victims’ bodies remain at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Italian authorities have arrested two individuals – survivors from the disaster – on charges of human trafficking. The sinking coincided with a similiar yet unrelated incident off the coast of Greece, where a makeshift raft carrying refugees crashed ashore, killing several passengers.

Human rights and government officials have swiftly condemned the underfunded and understaffed European Union rescue efforts. Many commentators argue that current EU policy is woefully insufficient for grappling with migrant issues. While the overall increase in attempted crossings is up only slightly from the same period last year, deaths have increased tenfold.

Operation Triton – the European Union’s current search-and-rescue program – is a watered down version of its predecessor, Italy’s unilaterally-operated Mare Nostrum. The EU’s program has less jurisdiction and operating power than Mare Nostrum, a program that was generally lauded as an efficient and life-saving enterprise shouldered by the already cash-strapped Italy. The funding for Operation Triton comes from EU member nations.

The current refugee crisis stems from a number of ongoing problems in the Middle East and Africa. From the civil war in Syria to repression in Eritrea, many refigures are fleeing violence and political conflict. As Sofia, an Eritrean refugee, explained to the Guardian, the dangers of the sea voyage are worth it: “In Eritrea you’re even afraid to talk to your family. The person next to me . . . could be a spy, and they are looking at what you are doing. People disappear every day.” While Syrians and Eritreans represent the two largest ethnic groups of refugees, still many others are simply trying to get a foothold in Europe to escape poverty endemic to sub-Saharan Africa.

Crossing attempts are abetted by sectarian conflict in Libya. The country’s instability has given smugglers and human traffickers a virtual carte blanche for operating out of Libyan ports. Though a big business in Libya, migrant smuggling networks stretch along the horn of Africa, encapsulating multiple countries and affecting refugees of many different nationalities. In Libya alone, there may be anywhere between 500,000 to a million people ready to make the treacherous voyage.

Nonprofits have stepped in, calling world attention to the complex issues at hand. Save the Children is offering migrants advice on the southern shores of Europe. Its leadership has also appealed to EU foreign ministers, who are meeting this week to come up with impactful solutions to the crisis, to “increase the number of Syrian refugees being resettled in Europe through legal channels, according to the criteria and needs identified by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.”

Other small groups are bringing philanthropists, humanitarians, and security professionals together to provide rescue services. Migrant Offshore Aid Station was founded by former Maltese military professionals, and has come to the aid of 3,000 refugees in distress off the shores of the island nation Malta. But these efforts simply aren’t on the scale necessary to deal with the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable persons poised to make the arduous, potentially fatal attempt at crossing the Mediterranean. 

While the myriad issues that contribute to the crisis may seem daunting, a comprehensive, unified response is needed immediately. Not only do migrants risk their lives during the voyage,  but they also face violence in their host countries. Migrants awaiting the opportunity to cross in Libya face beatings and rape. In Greece, an ongoing economic crisis and a large influx of migrants have created a social environment in which a resurgent neo-Nazi party has risen, with an uptick in paramilitary violence and xenophobic attacks.

In our next installment, we will look at the plight faced by migrants in southern Europe, breaking down the issues and exploring how nonprofits are involved. 


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