For several weeks now, a key issue on the radar of the European Union is the question of illegal immigrants from war-stricken African and Middle East countries arriving on the shores of Italy. Due to internal conflicts that are tearing apart nations like Syria or Nigeria, the Mediterranean has now become a scene of a serious humanitarian crisis – every day, we see new boats full of desperate refugees arriving on the shores of islands ranging from Malta to Lampedusa.

Some of them never make it to their destinations. Overcrowded and poorly managed, the vessels sink and result in deaths of hundreds of its passengers. Europe was finally shocked into action last week when more than 800 people lost their lives in yet another shipwreck off the Libyan coast. How will the European Union deal with the crisis? What are its future plans to manage this difficult situation?

Read on to follow a detailed analysis of the current refugee situation in Italy and an overview of measures taken or planned by the European Union to deal with the problem.

Facts and figures

Deaths at sea

Counting from the beginning of 2015, the current death toll at the Mediterranean is estimated to be more than 1,800. During 2014, at least 3,200 refugees died escaping their war-stricken homes. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 2000 almost 22,000 people have lost their lives fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean.

All the figures above are just estimates since it’s safe to assume that the news about tragedies and shipwrecks never reaches the Italian coast guard or the public. We might never know how many people actually die at sea every week.

Take this situation as an example: on Monday 13, the Italian coast guard received 20 SOS calls from boats in distress. This happened following a weekend when a total of 8,480 migrants were rescued – but the authorities fear that 400 other refugees might be missing. Testimony from survivors suggested that one capsized ship was carrying 550 people in the Mediterranean just 8 miles off the Libyan shore.

Rescued refugees

Approaching warmer months, Europe is beginning to worry about the gravity of the situation. A couple of weeks ago, Italy noted a record figure – a total of 978 migrants were rescued within a single day!

According to IOM, during the first three moths of 2015, Italy registered over 10,000 migrants arriving to its shores – and that’s before the beginning of spring and summer, which are critical to the situation at the European shores. Just consider this: the first week of April brought another 2,000 migrants to the coast of Sicily.

Such a huge influx of refugees is bound to take a toll on the migrant reception centers, which are in fact overcrowded and on the verge of collapse. Conservative politicians in Italy exhibit a variety of strong reactions to the present situation – some suggest that the refugees should be sent back to Libya, others claim that their there’s no place for migrant in their regions. Val d’Aosta, for instance, declared the willingness to accommodate 1 refugee in total.

At the moment, Italy has to take care of more than 70,000 migrants and asylum seekers. Experts warn that this summer might be critical – half a million of refugees might try to cross the Mediterranean this year.

That kind of burden is not something one nation can and should deal with alone. But before we move on to examine the reactions from the European Union, let’s have a look at the people at the very center of this crisis – the refugees themselves.

Who are the refugees?

Where do they come from? Primarily from the Middle East, Northern and Western Africa. They’re most often nationals of countries ranging from Syria, Iraq and Libya to Gambia, Nigeria or Liberia.

A recent CNN report featured countless personal stories that help us to realize the gravity of the situation and what it means for those directly involved in the crisis. (http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/16/europe/italy-migrants-port-augusta/) Here are some of them.

Timothy, a Nigerian in his mid-20s left his home nine months ago by paying human traffickers in Tripoli a sum of 1,000 Libyan dinars (more than 650 EUR) for the voyage. He considers his journey a fortune.

Jibril, a 28-year old man from Gambia said he left his home because “It’s not like in Europe”. “After 20, 25 years, you have to make a future for yourself. But in Gambia, I couldn’t. My family, they don’t have nothing. They are poor people,” he said.

Mercy, a woman from northern Nigeria, was almost unable to speak from shock – she left her hometown because her family feared that she would be taken by Boko Haram, a Jihadist group based in northeastern Nigeria.

A young Gambian, Al-Haji, simply exclaimed “I was scared”. He was determined to arrive in Europe: “I was taking a big risk. Either I enter Europe or I die”.

“There is such a mass of people who are disposed at any cost to leave and come with the prospect of jobs or liberty and a better future,” comments Marianna Vintiadis, director of the Italian office of Kroll Associates, a risk management consultancy.

“They’re spending 15 to 20 times the price of a plane ticket to make the most atrocious journey of their lives,” she said. And more often than not, this journey ends up as a tragedy.

European Union – what’s next?

Last Thursday, European Union leaders showed a plan to curb the wave of dangerous migration by means of hitting the lucrative smuggling trade directly. Just a week ago Italian police managed to arrest two people traffickers who were found among the survivors of a migrant boat capsized off the shore of Libya – the shipwreck where more than 800 people lost their lives.

Prosecutors detained two man, a 27-year-old captain of the vessel and a Syrian national aged 25. They were charged with people trafficking, and the captain was also charged with reckless multiple homicide as a result of the shipwreck.

The European Union is looking towards charging military operations directed against smuggler networks in Libya, as well as doubling its spending on search and rescue operations to save lives. Another important point is seizing and destroying vessels used by traffickers while still on the shores.

This is a policy supported by Amnesty International. “We only see that mission patrolling right around the borders of Italy. But all these boats that we have seen go down have been going down further afield, so closer to Libya, and these boats are simply not reaching that area,” said its deputy manager for Europe, Gauri Van Gulik.

Considering the little prospect of political stability in Syria, Iraq and Libya, as well as the continuing conflict in the Sahel region and central Africa, the influx of refugees is not very likely to slow down. Today a humanitarian crisis, the situation might quickly escalate to a real catastrophe.

That’s why it’s essential the the European community establishes working policies and helps countries like Malta and Italy in managing the risks involved in immigration across the Mediterranean, as well as providing basic care to the refugees themselves.

“I hope today is the turning point in the European conscience, not to go back to promises without actions,” said Federica Mogherini, the former Italian foreign minister, now the EU’s chief foreign and security policy coordinator.

It’s safe to say that the majority of Europeans feels and hopes for the same.

The article was contributed by Weronika Holeniewska of DATA Lab.

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