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More than 40,000 migrant deaths since 2000 and it’s only getting worse

A cruise ship rescues refugees fleeing from Syria from a stranded small boat off the southwestern coast of the east Mediterranean island. (AP Photo/Haris Milonas)

Seeking an opportunity for a better life in a different country is a dangerous proposition. More than 40,000 migrants have died since 2000. Paths to Europe prove to be the most dangerous with some 22,000 lives lost to migrants trying to make their way to the continent. Much of that can be blamed on harsh Mediterranean Sea, which migrants travel across from Northern Africa.

“It is time to do more than count the number of victims. It is time to engage the world to stop this violence against desperate migrants,” said William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The data comes from an exhaustive report by the IOM. It details the growing problem of insecurity faced by migrants. The organization seeks to make the case that the deaths are the result of “an epidemic of crime and victimization.” A global response is necessary to alleviate the problem that is only getting worse.

More than 3,000 migrants have died while traveling across the Mediterranean to Europe this year. Compare that against the 6,000 migrant deaths along the US-Mexico border since 2000 and it illustrates the gravity of the growing problem in the region.

A boat filled with 250 African migrants headed for Italy overturned two weeks ago. Only a few dozen passengers were rescued and more than 200 likely died. That contributed to a sum of more than 700 migrant deaths in one week at the hand of the Mediterranean. The deaths are only a small fraction of the people trying to reach Europe. More than 100,000 people have successfully made the journey from North Africa to Italy this year.

“Limited opportunities for safe and regular migration drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, feeding an unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people,” said Swing. “We need to put an end to this cycle. Undocumented migrants are not criminals. They are human beings in need of protection and assistance, and deserving respect.”

The call is targeted to combat growing anti-immigrant sentiments growing in recipient countries. European countries have seen nationalist parties, with platforms that seek to eliminate or severely limit migration, make major gains. In Sweden, the centre-left Social Democrat party won this month’s parliamentary election, but the far right anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party managed to win 49 parliamentary seats. The country which has played host to migrants and asylum seekers for decades is at risk of reversing course.

The rapid growth of migrants traveling to Europe may be behind the spike in deaths, says the IOM. Conflict and poverty are the most significant drivers. That explains why the majority of migrants landing in Italy come from Syria and Eritrea. Further contributing to the problem is the worsening situation in Libya, where migrants from other African and Middle Eastern countries stayed for work. The IOM says it is also hard to know whether new border policies are contributing to the deaths.

What is clear is that the status quo will not do. The report makes high level recommendations, such as collecting data. It turns out that finding out the number of migrants deaths is a difficult proposition.

“Although vast sums of money are spent collecting migration and border control data, very few agencies collect and publish data on migrant deaths,” said IOM Head of Research Frank Laczko.

Better data will help understand where migrants are going and where they are dying. That can arm Western countries, who the IOM says need to shoulder more responsibility, with the appropriate information to save lives and provide appropriate humanitarian assistance. Italy has been trying to do its party by deploying its Navy to patrol the Mediterranean and launch rescue missions.

The IOM hopes that more countries will do more to address the problem and hopefully avoid future deaths.

“The tiem is now, and we are already late,” said Swing.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]