How many more deaths must there be on migration routes for Europeans to pay attention?

Smugglers and traffickers stay in business because of the lack of legal and safe routes for those seeking refuge from their home countries

Another day and another series of deaths. The dozens who drowned off southern Italy on Sunday were undoubtedly people with dreams, extended families, and complex life stories we will most likely never learn. One was an infant child.

Their bodies washed up on a tourist beach – another reminder of the sharp disconnect between people on this planet: fates decided by the chance of where we were born or grew up, and which documents we have or don’t have.

Local news agencies reported that those on board were from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. Will they all be identified? Will their families ever even find out what became of them?

Nearly 26,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014; at least 20,430 of them in the Central Mediterranean. Those numbers are collected by the International Organisation for Migration, and analysts say they are likely an underestimate. Before the latest disaster, at least 182 people had died in the Central Mediterranean this year.


The UN has previously called the Central Mediterranean the deadliest migration route in the world. The danger there is being exacerbated by political efforts and policies which are deliberately decreasing the availability of search-and-rescue in the area, in an attempt to stop boats reaching European territory.

At the time of writing, it was not fully clear where the boat had set off from, though a local official said it was believed to have come from Izmir in Turkey. In Turkey, many refugees and migrants are at risk of arrest and deportation. More than 44,000 Afghans were deported from Turkey to Afghanistan in the first eight months of last year, after the Taliban took over, while Human Rights Watch documented the deportation of hundreds of Syrians to Syria, in an apparent violation of international law.

Others attempt to cross the Central Mediterranean from Tunisia, where president Kais Saied this week ordered the expulsion of undocumented migrants, amid a crackdown on opposition, sparking what observers have called a “witch hunt” against black Africans.

Neighbouring Libya has been a hub of smuggling and trafficking for the past decade. Since 2017, hardening EU policy has seen more than 114,000 refugees and migrants intercepted on the Central Mediterranean and forced back there, to a situation where the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s office, among others, has said there is evidence that crimes against humanity are taking place against them.

The reality is that many people are fleeing domestic situations that have been influenced by the West, yet the West is hardening borders against them.

Somalia, for instance, is currently facing a devastating drought and potential famine said to be related to climate change, despite Somalis themselves barely producing any emissions. Afghanistan and Iraq have both been devastated by conflicts in which western powers clearly played a key role. Many of those who attempt to make these dangerous journeys would be able to claim a right to international protection, and receive refugee status, if they could simply make it on to the territory of a safe country in the first place.

Speaking after the shipwreck, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni blamed the deaths on human smugglers and traffickers, without a recognition that smugglers and traffickers stay in business because of the lack of legal and safe routes for those who entrust their lives to them.

The UN Refugee Agency projected that more than 2 million refugees will be in need of resettlement this year – a process that involves moving refugees legally to safe countries, generally in the West. Of these, 662,012 are on the African Continent and 417,200 in Turkey. But western countries have not been offering enough spaces, and there were only 22,800 departures in 2020 and 39,266 in 2021.

How many more deaths must there be for Europeans to pay attention?