04/18/2015 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Mediterranean Refugee Crisis


Overloaded Boat of Refugees Crossing the Mediterranean

The civil wars that are tearing apart Libya and Syria are precipitating yet another humanitarian crisis as boat loads of desperate refugees attempt to cross the Mediterranean in order to seek asylum in the European Community. Italy, Greece and Malta are bearing the brunt of the rapidly escalating crisis of "Mediterranean Boat People."

In 2014, a total of 219 thousand refugees were rescued as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. In the eastern Mediterranean the refugees were principally Syrians fleeing the fighting in their homeland. In the central Mediterranean, the refugees included Libyans fleeing their civil war but also a broad assortment of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa departing from Libya as a result of the complete breakdown of Libyan border controls.


Syrian Refugee Camp, Za'atri Jordan

The central Mediterranean, where the eastern and western basins of this inland sea meet, is the most popular route as the distance between the North African shore and Sicily is only about 300 miles. This is generally a two to three day journey. Moreover, the Italian island of Lampedusa is only 184 miles to the northwest of Tripoli while the island of Malta, the European Union's smallest member, is only 222 miles to the northeast. The distance from Tunis to Trapani, Sicily's closest port, is only 96 miles.

Between April 10 and 16, over 10,000 refugees were rescued by Italian naval vessels. The highest weekly number to date. An additional 400 refugees drowned while attempting the crossing. Since the beginning of the year at least 900 refugees have died while escaping from North Africa. The actual number is believed to be much higher. The death toll in the comparable period last year was 17 refugees and 3,500 over the entire year.

Much of the activity is being organized by criminal gangs that are charging exorbitant rates, often times exceeding $3,000 per head, and filling boats with little consideration of their capacity or seaworthiness. Refugees are often rescued suffering from extreme dehydration and sunstroke. There are no life jackets.

The standing room only shipboard conditions, and the lack of medical or sanitation facilities, means that disease can spread like wildfire even on the relatively short crossing. Typically, the organizers radio a plea for assistance as soon as the boats are 30 or so miles off the Libyan coast.


Maltese Protector Class Patrol Boats, Maritime Squadron, Armed Forces Malta

Malta, 122 square miles in size and whose population numbers only 350,000, has been, proportionally, the hardest hit of the countries bearing the brunt of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. In 2014, Maltese authorities rescued 17,000 refugees, a figure equivalent to roughly 5 percent of its population. That's the equivalent of having 17 million refugees landing on American shores.

In October 2013, in response to the sinking of a refugee laden ship off of Lampedusa, which resulted in the deaths of 360 people, the Italian government launched operation Mare Nostrum. The program deployed Italian navy ships in the international waters between Libya and Sicily in order to intercept refugee boats.

The operation consisted of a total of 32 Italian naval vessels, averaging five ships on station at any one time. They intercepted a total of 420 boats carrying a total of 150,810 refugees. The operation lasted from October 2013 through November 2014, and cost approximately eight million euros per month. That cost was largely borne by the Italian government. An additional 50,000 refugees were rescued by commercial ships in the Mediterranean.


North African Refugees Being Disembarked From an Italian Coast Guard Vessel in Sicily

The program was criticized by a number of European Community members who argued that Italian willingness to rescue the refugees would only encourage more refugees to attempt the dangerous crossing. In November 2014, Rome announced the launch of Project Triton. This is a more modest program designed to intercept refugee ships when they approached within 30 miles of Sicily.

With summer rapidly approaching and the political situation in Libya spiraling increasingly out of control, there is widespread fear among Italian and Maltese authorities that they will be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of new refugees. Italian authorities estimate that approximately 500,000 refugees will attempt to make a crossing from North Africa this year. With anti-immigration sentiment on the rise within Europe, the EU has been ambivalent about tackling the issue.

There is also a mounting concern that jihadist groups in Libya will attempt to infiltrate militants into Malta and Italy, and from there elsewhere into the EU, posing as refugees. Many of the refugees rescued have little in the way of documentation and many refuse to disclose their nationality for fear of being deported back to their home countries.

Islamic State has claimed that it has smuggled over 4,000 militants into Europe disguised as refugees. While this number is probably exaggerated, it is likely that some number of jihadist militants posing as refugees have already entered Europe.

In addition there is mounting evidence that jihadist groups, especially in eastern Libya, are using refugee smuggling as a lucrative source of funds either by providing protection to the smugglers or by taking over the activity themselves. At roughly one million dollars per boatload of refugees, the "trade" in refugee smuggling is worth around 500 million dollars.

With little prospect of political stability in Libya, and with continuing unrest in the Sahel region and central Africa, from Mauritania to the Gulf of Guinea, and across Mali, Chad and the Sudan all the way to Somalia, the flood tide of refugees shows little signs of slowing down. Unless the European Community and the United Nations act quickly to bring some order to this situation, what began as a humanitarian crisis will quickly spiral into a catastrophe.