Posted on April 14, 2015

Influx of Migrants Across Mediterranean Nears Record Levels

Jim Yardley, New York Times, April 13, 2015

With spring barely arrived, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is already approaching last year’s record levels after a startling weekend in which more than 5,600 people were rescued from a small armada of smugglers’ wooden and rubber boats, even as nine others died after their vessel capsized.

The figures suggest that European officials are likely to be confronted again with a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, after a year in which more than 3,200 people died and more than 130,000 were rescued by Italian naval and coast guard ships. Humanitarian groups estimate that nearly 500 people have already died at sea this year, compared with about 50 in the same period last year.

“We are experiencing a trend similar to last year,” said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman in Italy for the International Organization for Migration. “It is an emergency from a humanitarian point of view. These people are risking their lives, and many people are losing their lives at sea. It is also an operational emergency.”

For years, migrants have paid smugglers to deliver them to Europe via the Mediterranean, with the numbers spiking during the summer, when the sea is calmer. But unrest in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, along with war and poverty in some African countries, has transformed migration into a year-round phenomenon with increased risks for calamity.

Europe has struggled to absorb the huge numbers of migrants and to develop a strategy to rescue them at sea. Italy has borne much of the rescue burden and won praise for its Mare Nostrum program, in which Italian ships served as the front line in rescue operations.

But Mare Nostrum ended in November and is being replaced by a new program, Triton, under the command of Frontex, the European immigration agency. Under Triton, the patrolling is supposed to be shared by a variety of nations, though Italy is still doing the most.