500 Refugees Drown in Overloaded Boat to Europe: The Real Costs of Exclusion

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April 20, 2016; NPR, “The Two-Way”

Sometimes it is important to provide a little human context for the politics of immigration in Europe and the United States.

A UN Refugee Agency team reports that a boat with as many as 500 refugees sank last week as it was trying to make the journey between Libya and Italy. Only 41 survived—37 men, 3 women and one three-year-old child—who were all adrift on the Mediterranean for three days before they were rescued.

The tragedy, according to the survivors, happened when smugglers moved 200 people to another already overcrowded vessel. The survivors appear to be those who had not yet transferred to the larger vessel. About half of those on board were from Somalia, with the rest being from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan.

But the tragedy also has other policy-based roots. Sudarsan Rughavan writes in the Washington Post:

A controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey has dramatically reduced the number of refugees reaching the Greek islands. Balkan nations are closing their borders as well, preventing travel from Greece to Germany and beyond. That has triggered fears that more refugees and migrants could attempt to enter Europe from Egypt or Libya.

Last year, more than 1 million migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean. They were mostly fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, using Turkey as a launching pad to Greece and then deeper into Europe. But the crossing from North Africa to Italy has historically been more perilous than the one from Turkey to Greece.

According to Rughavan, one Ethiopian man told the International Organization for Migration, “I saw my wife and my 2-month-old child die at sea, together with my brother-in-law. […] The boat was going down. All the people died in a matter of minutes.”—Ruth McCambridge