Perilous migrant crossings of the Mediterranean are rising
THE SINKING of an overladen trawler off Greeces coast on June 14th is thought to be the second-most deadly migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean, the worlds most perilous migration route. So far 81 bodies have been recovered; 104 people have been rescued. According to the UNs human-rights agency, up to 500 people from the vessel bound for Italy are still missing. Only the capsizing of a vessel off the Libyan coast in April 2015 cost more lives (see chart). Small boats setting off from Tunisia or western Libya usually aim to reach Sicily, Malta or the Italian island of Lampedusa and are often fragile. The vessel involved in the latest disaster, however, left from the eastern Libyan port of Tobruk and was probably heading for Sicily or the southern Italian mainland. Those routes are significantly longer and require bigger, more seaworthy boats. Emergencies at sea affecting such vessels are less common, but when they do occur they can lead to hundreds of deaths. In the past 12 months traffic across the Mediterranean has increased, alarming governments in southern Europe. In 2022 34,600 migrants had crossed the sea by the end of May. In the first five months of this year 65,000 made the journey. Although the number of arrivals is rising, it is far below the level reached in 2015 and 2016, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fled from conflicts at home. Europol, the EUs police agency, says that one reason for the recent increase has been the end of the covid-19 pandemic; another is the near closure by governments of the land route that snakes from Turkey to Croatia and beyond. NGOs monitoring the flows from North Africa point to two additional factors. The first is the dire state of the economy in Tunisia and the hostility shown by its president, Kais Saied, towards migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. In February, he accused them of seeking to dilute his countrys Arab identity. On June 11th Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commissions president, and Giorgia Meloni and Mark Rutte, the Italian and Dutch prime ministers, met Mr Saied in Tunis to try to secure his co-operation in managing the flow of migrants. During her visit, Ms von der Leyen offered a 1bn ($1.1bn) loan for Tunisias beleaguered economy. A second factor has been the gradual re-establishment of conditions in Libya favourable to people smuggling. The criminal networks that profit from irregular migration need the protection of the militias that control much of the country. And co-operation between militias can be essential if migrants have to be moved from the territory of one into that of another. But links between them were disrupted in 2019 by a conflict that lasted about a year and a half and was triggered by Khalifa Haftar, the de facto ruler of the east, to assert his control over the whole of Libya. The fighting ended in mid-2020, but by then covid had begun to disrupt travel of both the legal and the illegal kind. The latest disaster is no more likely than previous ones to deter refugees and those prepared to risk all for a better life in the rich world.