Continued Crossings Highlight Risks Migrants Willing to Take to Reach Europe
by Caitlin Katsiaficas (November 11, 2015)
The number of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea continues to be high, despite worsening weather conditions. While boat crossings typically decrease in autumn, October saw record numbers of people arriving. Over 218,000 people entered Europe by sea last month alone, compared to 219,000 that made the crossing during the whole of 2014.
The number of people arriving in October was higher than in the summer, which is traditionally the peak season due to relatively better weather conditions. Colder temperatures and rougher waters increase the risks of hypothermia and boat accidents in winter months. That an increased number of people are traveling by sea as crossings become more dangerous is alarming, and this trend shows no signs of slowing. Recent casualties highlight the risk involved in such journeys. The death toll in the Mediterranean is already higher this year than for all of 2014; around half of the deaths in Greek waters this year occurred in October.
Why are people continuing to cross in such conditions?
There are reports of smugglers in Turkey offering a discount of up to 50% to those who travel in poor weather conditions, to encourage people to make the crossing and keep business steady. According to a UNHCR spokesperson, there is a connection between these discounts and increased fatalities in recent weeks.
Border closures along the routes taken by migrants to reach destinations in Western Europe have led to an increased sense of urgency for those who have yet to make the journey. Changing policies have led to uncertainty and a fear that borders could close completely.
While most migrants on the move to Europe had been younger and middle-aged adult males, more women, children, and elderly people are now making the journey. One reason for this is the long wait for family reunification—some have made the calculation that it is preferable for the family to travel together than to send one person ahead and have the rest join later. Some women and children are also traveling to join members of their families who went ahead first. Another reason for this shift is the changing policies of European states: as some countries facilitate the movement of migrants to other countries instead of blocking it, the trip can be faster and cheaper with less reliance on using smugglers to travel within the European Union.
Above all, as violence, the main reason for the increase in migration, persists, people continue to have an impetus to try to reach Europe. The majority of people on the move to Europe are considered to be asylum seekers. Despite the dangers of the journey, it is simply preferable to the alternatives.
Increased risks as winter approaches
Whereas most had been crossing the Aegean in smaller, inflatable rubber boats, larger wooden boats are now being used more frequently. These boats are often old and unsafe, and are carrying larger numbers of people, which can lead to higher numbers of casualties if an accident occurs.
Risks increase as people are exposed to the elements, even more so as winter approaches. This is a problem both as people cross into Greece and as they continue on their journeys into Europe, especially in light of bottlenecks and border closures that can prolong a journey and make it more difficult.
High numbers of people on the move to Europe are expected to continue as violence persists; a UNHCR spokesperson called it a “new reality”. The Greek Aegean islands continue to be the most popular arrival point in Europe. The continued movement of large numbers of people, combined with worsening sea and weather conditions, means that the journey will likely become even more hazardous and the humanitarian needs even more pressing in the coming months.
In light of these trends, search and rescue efforts are even more crucial to protecting migrants. Help for the Greek coastguard, which has been responding to boats in trouble, is vital, as is continued and increased European cooperation. Also important is providing information on the risks of sea crossings, particularly in poor weather conditions and unseaworthy vessels, to counter information provided by smugglers. However, when there is a lack of alternative routes to Europe, this can only do so much. Legal and safe routes to the continent for migrants are essential to their protection. Expanded and expedited family reunification would also decrease the need for people to undertake such risky crossings.
Caitlin Katsiaficas is Research Associate at Bridging Europe
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