09/20/2014 10:47 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

Why Thousands Of Refugees Have Drowned Trying To Get To Europe This Year


Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we turn to the immigration crisis on Europe's borders.

As many as 700 people are believed to have drowned in two tragic accidents last week during what may have been the deadliest weekend in the Mediterranean in history.

On Sept. 10, traffickers sank a ship with 500 Syrians, Egyptians and Sudanese who were trying to reach Europe. More than 200 African emigrants are thought to have drowned only days later when their boat sank off the Libyan coast.

Tens of thousands of migrants attempt the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe each year. Paying smugglers small fortunes to be transported in what are often ramshackle boats, they hope to escape war or poor economic conditions and settle in the European Union. Many never make it across. This year alone, nearly 3,000 people are believed to have died while trying to reach southern Europe.

The WorldPost spoke to Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, an independent organization that "advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people," about the rising number of emigrants and the devastating rate of accidents.

Newspapers report on intercepted boats and accidents in the Mediterranean nearly every week. Is the number of people trying to cross into Europe steadily growing?

There's a very steep increase in the number of people crossing from the North African coast towards Europe. About 60,000 people crossed last year. Today, in mid-September, we are at 130,000, more than twice as much. There’s also been a dramatic increase in the number of people dying at sea. We estimate about 700 people died last year, and now the figures are anything between 2,200 and 2,500, without counting last week's deaths. These are estimates because people are not registered.

The routes have also moved. A few years ago, the largest movement ran from Morocco towards Spain, and these were mostly people from Sub-Saharan Africa who were moving essentially for economical reasons -- young men without jobs looking for an opportunity. The Spanish connection has now almost entirely been blocked by border enforcement and we’ve seen the routes shift towards departures from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt instead.

The boats carry a mixture of people. In the last boat, there were Sudanese, Egyptians, people from Gaza and many Syrians.

What's the Syrians' situation like?

We were in Egypt a couple of months ago and talked to many Syrian families there. The Syrians who had arrived in Egypt basically came through Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and they came to the country legally. They were initially very well received by the Egyptians under the previous government [of Mohammed Morsi].

The new government [led by former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi] has taken a completely different line, and when the new government assumed power there was a tremendous campaign of denigration, accusing the refugees of being pro-Morsi. Living conditions deteriorated all of a sudden, right at a time when there’s no indication the Syrian conflict will come to any kind of resolution in the near future and expectations of going back to Syria one day are being deafened.

Many of these families have relatives in Europe and they’re becoming desperate about their future. We warned them that the trip they were about to undertake wasn't light, their women were at high risk of being abused by traffickers, they could drown and they would certainly not receive an open-armed welcome in Europe. Why would they want to take this risk? They told us their economies are gone; they don’t have jobs; they don’t have access to services; their children are not going to school. "We have nothing to lose, so we’ll try,” they said.

It’s dramatic that people are reaching that level of desperation.

What explains the huge rise in deaths at sea? Are smugglers getting more brutal?

I’m not sure I have the answer to that. The bottom line is that this is a business for the smugglers and they treat people like cattle. They have no sympathy for the refugees' plight, for the fact that they suffered in Syria or suffered economic deprivation. There's a huge line of refugees waiting to cross. I think it’s just brutal economics.

Has the international community done anything to address the crisis?

There are some worrisome moves. The Italian government has run a project for the past year called Mare Nostrum -- Our Common Sea. They sent boats to try to rescue refugees in international waters, where most of the accidents take place. It's been suggested to expand those patrols to Frontex, the European border agency. However, the new patrols would occur in territorial waters. To me, that looks much more like border protection than rescuing people.

The High Commissioner for Refugees has suggested several measures to the international community that could reduce the flow of migrants -- people recognized as refugees should be given much better chances of resettlement in European countries, many people could qualify for humanitarian visas, why not look at student visas or employment visas for people that could perform jobs that are needed in Europe. A lot of measures would give refugees a little bit more hope and reduce the movement. If you reduce the movement, you’ll have less people die.

What's the one point in this debate that's often overlooked?

When we look at the immigration crisis from the West, we often argue there are countries in the region that can deal with the issue and we can give them help. "This is far away and we have our own problems," is the argument.

Right now, in Lebanon, one person in four is a Syrian refugee. It’s one in six in Jordan. In Iraqi Kurdistan, one in four are people displaced by the current violence. In our countries, the presence of 40,000 kids at the border becomes national drama and is used politically. The sacrifice we make is nothing compared to what other countries are making, and we seem to ignore that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.