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Rough crossings

Kersten Knipp / bkOctober 18, 2013

The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have done more than topple dictatorships; the unrest has also altered migration patterns. And the journey to Europe has become more precarious.

Sept. 28, 2013 - LA STAMPA Editorial via Worldcrunch: On Lampedusa, Italy's Infamous Destination For Immigrants, New Arrivals From Syria - Over the past decade, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has become one of the main points of European entry for illegal immigrants. Even though the 90-mile open sea journey from Tunisia has already killed thousands, a new wave of refugees from Syria are following the same route. picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS
Image: picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS

The boat was not robust enough to withstand the sea. It was hurled helplessly across the waves, taking on more and more water until it finally capsized. Several were killed, including a Syrian nurse who had braved the crossing to Europe with her husband and two children. Her body was recovered, and her husband decided that her death should not be totally futile, allowing her liver and kidneys to be used for transplants. Three Italians on a waiting list received her organs.

The young woman's death is only one of several among Syrian refugees recorded by the United Nations' refugee organization UNHCR, and the number has risen in the last three months. Though most of these try to make the journey by land, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said that many attempt the more dangerous sea-crossing because the land borders are shut. Syria's neighboring countries, which have already taken in over two million refugees between them, are now becoming increasingly reluctant to accept any more.

A row of dead bodies are covered with sheets at the port of Lampedusa, Italy, 03 October 2013. According to Italian port authorities, at least 82 bodies have been recovered off the Italian coast after a ship carrying migrants sank near the southern island of Lampedusa. The ship, which was believed to be carrying hundreds of migrants from Somalia and Eritrea, suffered extensive damage as it approached the smaller island of Conigli. EPA/NINO RANDAZZO BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE. +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Several Syrian refugees drowned off LampedusaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Escape by sea

For that reason, many Syrians have begun seeking shelter in Europe. Many who have made it as far as Turkey then try to travel on to Bulgaria, a member of the European Union, explains Bill Frelick, refugee specialist at Human Rights Watch.

But those that don't make it to Turkey have to find another way. They travel south until they reach the Mediterranean coast, where more and more Syrians are now attempting boat crossings. Between the early August and mid-September, the UNHCR documented more than 30 successful crossings from North Africa to southern Italy. Around 3,300 Syrian refugees made it to Europe by this route, including 230 unaccompanied children. Most of these boats start from Egypt, though recently many have also launched from Libya. Neither route is easy.

Distrust in Egypt

Conditions for foreign refugees, particularly Syrians, have recently worsened in Egypt, says Baloch. Until the fall of President Mohammed Morsi at the start of July, Syrians were welcome in the country, "but since then, the authorities have become stricter and stricter," he said. They are now required to have a special visa and have to endure countless security checks. "On top of this, according to our information, many Syrians who want to leave Egypt by sea get arrested and sent back to Syria," Baloch added. Human Rights Watch has reported this, too.

Another Mediterranean migrant disaster

But refugees from other countries, particularly sub-Saharan ones, are also experiencing greater difficulties. The route through the Sinai Peninsula, for instance, which many Africans used to attempt in the hope of reaching Israel, has now been blocked, partly by a fence erected by Israel on its southern border, and partly by the unrest on the peninsula.

Xenophobia in Libya

Faced with these obstacles, some Syrians travel further west to Libya, in the hope of finding a boat. But the situation there is not much better either. Frelick points out that the new Libyan government hasn't rectified the fact that there were no laws protecting refugees during the reign of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. "Libya is a black hole where xenophobia is very widespread," he said.

A boat is moored at the Lampedusa island, Italy, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013. Authorities say divers have recovered new bodies from a fiery shipwreck of a fishing boat packed with 500 migrants from Eritrea. Financial police Maj. Leonardo Ricci said divers have recovered about 10 bodies since resuming the search Sunday morning. He said the search and recovery would continue "as long as the sea is calm and there is light." (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Europe is still arguing over what to do about the mounting death tollImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

That means that those who make a profit from the refugees neglect their welfare and safety. The crossings, says Frelick, are poorly organized: "Unseaworthy boats are used, and if refugees don't want to go aboard, they are sometimes forced." By this time, of course, many of the refugees have already paid for the crossing, and the profiteers care little whether they survive it. Meanwhile, European governments continue to argue over how to deal with the situation.