Hundreds More Die Trying To Reach Europe

Photo: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/Getty Images.
The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is getting worse. Another boat sank on Saturday night, and it looks like it could be the worst accident yet; 700 people were traveling on the boat, and only 50 have been rescued. According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, more than 36,000 people have crossed the sea to Europe this year, and after the weekend’s tragedy, more than 1,600 have died.

Why are things so bad?
In 2014, 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, running from political instability in African countries including Libya and Nigeria, and Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Yemen. Conditions in those nations are still dire, and human rights groups expect the surge of refugees to continue as Libya descends further into chaos and Syria's civil war rages. According to the E.U. official in charge of border control, as many as one million people are waiting in Libya to make the journey.

Why are conditions for the journey so terrifying?
Refugees pay human traffickers for passage to Europe, and those traffickers crowd men, women, and children onto boats. A human rights advocate told The Telegraph that smugglers force travelers onboard even if they want to change their minds, even threatening them with guns. The boats are usually old and dilapidated, often filled far beyond capacity. A survivor of one recent disaster said that passengers were locked inside on lower decks, which trapped as the ship went down.

What’s being done to help?
At the moment, the European Union has boats patrolling the water, but pretty much everyone admits that the program isn’t enough. Italy was running a rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea” in Latin, which rescued about 100,000 people from danger, but it was shut down at the end of October after pressure from anti-immigrant political groups. Now, there just aren’t enough boats; the E.U.’s program has a much smaller budget and fewer resources to launch rescue missions. And the operation, named Triton, is supposed to be dedicated to border patrol — not search and rescue. E.U. officials are meeting in Luxembourg on Monday to discuss how to handle the current crisis.

Why is saving people from drowning so controversial?
Each country within the European Union sets its own immigration policies, so some are more welcoming to newcomers and asylum seekers than others. And, just like the United States, many European countries have vocal and highly motivated anti-immigrant factions. Individual nations fight about how to deal with their own border policies, and nations fight with each other over how the E.U. will regulate immigration. 

It's not just right wing nationalist political parties like France's National Front or the U.K. Independence Party; everyday racism has also been increasingly visible. In Italy especially, this has led to high-profile incidents, such as when the country’s first Black government minister had bananas thrown at her, and when Italian soccer fans taunted Black visiting players with racist chants.

What happens next?
After Monday's meeting, European officials will probably announce more funding for their current patrol operation, and human rights groups want the E.U. to commit to a much more serious plan to rescue refugees in peril.

“What we are witnessing in the Mediterranean is a man-made tragedy of appalling proportions. These latest deaths at sea come as a shock, but not a surprise,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.“It is time for European governments to face their responsibilities and urgently set up a multi-country concerted humanitarian operation to save lives at sea.”

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