They may come from Afghanistan, Mali or Syria. Driven by poverty or hunger, refugees try to make it to Europe by a handful of routes. Not all of these lead to Mediterranean islands, but almost all of them are perilous.
Almost 300,000 refugees came to the EU looking for a new home in 2012, often crossing hundreds of kilometers from their home countries.
Refugees from crisis- and war-torn regions of the world mostly use four main routes to the outer borders of the European Union. A route along the eastern Mediterranean is the most popular among the four. Furthermore, officers of the European border patrol agency Frontex catch many illegal immigrants between Turkey and Greece who try to enter the EU on land. Frontex registered more than 37,000 illegal border crossings here in 2012. The second-most frequented route leads from Libya and Tunisia to Italy or Malta, with roughly 10,000 crossings. Other routes lead from Algeria and Morocco to Spain, across the Balkans and from western Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands.
"Right now, the route across the Mediterranean is more heavily frequented again, so more people are arriving on Lampedusa and Sicily," says Harald Glöde, head of the Berlin office of Borderline Europe. "The routes vary, depending on where the EU is most strongly closed off at that moment."
Refugees have migrated across the Mediterranean in large numbers since the early 1990s. Initially, the Balkan route from Albania to Italy was the most used before crossing the Mediterranean emerged as the favored method.
This month's catastrophe in which around 300 people died trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa by boat illustrates how dangerous attempts to do so can be. The most recent such tragedy happened on Friday (11.10.2013). A further 27 people died when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean.
Beginning December 13, 2013, the EU will use a new satellite-supported system, expanded with drone technology, to attempt to address illegal immigration. A stated aim of the European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur) is to help the EU speed up its efforts to locate and rescue refugees who cross the water in unseaworthy, overcrowded boats. But Human Rights organizations object that the surveillance system was mostly created to protect the EU from illegal immigrants - and not to save refugees.
Harald Glöde fears that further tightening EU borders will result in more deaths among refugees trying to reach the continent. "Eurosur means that desperate people trying to get to Europe will have to travel farther and farther routes in smaller and smaller boats that won't be recognized in satellite pictures as quickly." The claim that Eurosur will save lives is pure cynicism in Glöde's eyes.
10,000 euros for the ticket to Europe
The International Organization for Migration's estimates roughly 20,000 migrants died in the last ten years, but the true figure is probably much higher. "If Eurosur stops people from crossing the sea in boats that aren't seaworthy, it would be a positive effect," Bernd Hemingway from the organization believes.
However, he stresses that combating organized crime would also be instrumental in addressing illegal immigration. Refugees turn to smugglers to support them in their plight and transport them, Hemingway says. They have to pay between 5,000 and 10,000 Euros ($6,780 to 13,560). The Mediterranean passage alone costs between 1,000 and 2,000 Euros. And there's no guarantee they'll survive the risky journey. There were around 500 refugees on the boat that sank off the coast of Lampedusa in early October, and more than half of them died.
The refugees who make it to Lampedusa and other Mediterranean harbors alive often need medical attention
Under the radar
"These smugglers are part of organized crime networks," Bernd Hemingway says. "They are flexible, which is why it's so hard to get control of the situation."
Once the Mediterranean goes under closer scrutiny by Eurosur starting in December, traffickers will likely find other ways to smuggle people into Europe. The International Organization for Migration is observing a new route already, particularly among Syrian refugees. They have been seen crossing the Black Sea to Romania and Bulgaria.
The EU's approach drives people into the smugglers' hands, Harald Glöde from Borderline Europe argues. He says that's because those risking their lives for entry into the European Union don't have access to legal means of doing so otherwise.
Most illegal immigrants opt for yet another course. According to Human Rights organizations, 70 to 80 percent of them enter the EU with a tourist visa. They simply don't leave once the document expires and continue to live in Europe illegally or apply for a residence permit. Many experts agree that if legal options of moving to the EU remain so scarce, people will keep turning to desperate measures to arrive under the radar.