Mechanics of Migration

Bangladeshi migrant workers who have crossed the Egyptian border wait patiently for a repatriation flight home, relieved to have escaped the fighting in Libya. Picture © Stabilisation Unit/DFID

Rachele Sbrissa examines enforced disappearance, people trafficking and missing persons issues that are an integral element in the Mediterranean migration crisis

Migration and forced migration have become issues of growing international attention and concern. A majority of people move voluntarily, but in 2013, out of 232 million estimated migrants,[1] 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced,[2] that is compelled to leave their homes in an attempt to escape from armed conflicts, persecution, political instability, natural disasters and poverty.[3] Behind the statistics, the plight of migrants and refugees constitutes a serious humanitarian emergency, which has recently been brought into the spotlight by rising immigration flows affecting Europe, notably through the main transit routes of the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Despite huge sums of money being spent on collecting migration and border control data, relatively little is known about the migrants who die during their journey and/or go missing, as no organisation at the global level is responsible for monitoring these fatalities and very few governments collect and publish data on migrant deaths.[4]

Globally, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that at least 4,077 migrants died in 2014, and at least 40,000 since the year 2000.[5] The true number of fatalities is likely to be higher, as many deaths occur in remote regions of the world and are never recorded: some experts suggest that for every dead body discovered, there are at least two that are never recovered.[6] For example, in the case of tragedies at sea, the majority of bodies are never found: moreover, as many migrants are undocumented, often relatively little is known about their identities, even for those whose bodies are recovered.[7] In the majority of fatalities occurring in 2014, it was not even possible to establish whether the deceased were male or female.[8] Additionally, for some regions of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, NGOs, media and governments are not tracking migrant deaths.[9]

Europe, facing conflicts to the south (Libya and further south), east (Ukraine) and southeast (Syria and Iraq), is now seeing an unprecedented number of people arriving from refugee-producing countries. People in search of asylum are a major component of this flow, accounting for almost 50 percent of the total: the number of Eritrean and Syrians who arrived by sea to Italy in 2014 increased by 275 percent and 250 percent respectively compared to 2013, and this growing trend was also evident in the first month of 2015.[10]

Almost 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2014, a number that is three times higher than the previous peak of 2011 when the Arab Spring was at its height.[11] Italy, with 170,100 arrivals in 2014 and around 46,500 in the first five months of 2015, is currently seeing the largest number of maritime arrivals; Greece received around 42,200 maritime arrivals, mostly from Turkey, a six-fold increase over the same period in 2014.[12] The third major sea route leads to Spain and its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves.[13] Around 1,850 people perished or went missing in the Mediterranean in the first five months of 2015, a number which is almost six times higher than the same period in 2014: over 3,500 people perished or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2014.[14]

For a continuously rising number of migrants and refugees, crossing the Mediterranean represents just the second part of their journey. The path followed by migrants from the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) to Europe, for example, follows a precise itinerary imposed by Sudanese people traffickers: in Khartoum, Sudan, different groups offer travel to Libya, where agreements have been made with traffickers who will take the migrants across the Mediterranean.[15]

“In less than a week you arrive on the coast and a few days later you get on the boat,” says Adem, an Eritrean activist who lives in Italy. “No rapes on the way, otherwise the agency’s reputation gets tarnished and refugees turn to another trafficker. Of course, to ensure efficiency, costs must be reduced and the journey to Libya is done by transporting 40 people in a single jeep.” The Libyans take over at the end of the supply chain, to carry people across the Mediterranean. “Each smuggler agency has its ‘office’ in a city of Libya,” says Adem. “The headquarters are in a detached anonymous house, where you arrive at night and you sleep together with 200 other people. When the boat is ready, you leave and you go to the beach, where speedboats pick up migrants ten at a time and load them onto the boat. Obviously the smugglers want to cram it over its capacity and some refuse to get on. But at that point the Libyans call their Eritrean, Somali, or Ethiopian contacts and ask for permission to shoot those who object – permission that is given promptly.”[16]

For those traveling from sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahara is a dangerous obstacle on the way to the sea: it separates West Africa and the Horn of Africa from the Mediterranean and it is crossed by trucks and SUV travelling between Sudan, Chad, Niger and Mali on one side and Libya and Algeria on the other. Along routes from Western and Central Africa, migrant fatalities are a result of the dangers related to crossing a challenging terrain with inadequate supplies of food and water; in other cases, death occurs when migrants get lost in the desert, are left stranded by facilitators or are crammed into overcrowded vehicles.[17] Along routes from the Horn, similar dangers exist, although reports suggest a larger role of criminal activities in causing deaths, including outright murder and kidnapping.[18] Since 1996, at least 1,790 people have died on these routes, but according to the testimony of survivors, almost every trip has fatalities and it is likely that the number of victims reported in the media represents a lower estimate.[19] Among the dead there are also victims of collective deportations practiced by authorities in Tripoli, Algiers and Rabat.[20]

The Mediterranean is the world’s most dangerous sea route for refugees and migrants.[21] With the dramatic increase in the number of people attempting to cross from 2013 onwards,[22] often in unsafe vessels with minimal or no safety or navigation equipment, drowning and other incidents at sea have become more common.[23] In October 2013 the Italian government established the humanitarian naval operation “Mare Nostrum”, which during 2014 helped to rescue over 166,000 people.[24] Some EU governments argued that the rescue operation was acting as a “pull-factor” for refugees and migrants coming from the North African coast, and lobbied for its ending, then instructing the EU border agency, Frontex, to set up Operation Triton, with a different mandate, area of operation and budget.[25] Operation Triton, whose mandate was primarily to control the EU’s border rather than to rescue boats, was limited to 30 nautical miles off the Italian and Maltese coasts, far from where the vast majority of boats get into trouble. Its budget was a third of Mare Nostrum’s budget, and it comprised fewer and smaller vessels.[26] As a result, in the first five months of 2015, 1,865 people had died attempting the Mediterranean crossing, compared to 425 during the same period in 2014.[27]

UNHCR estimates that from January to April 2015, 1,600 migrants disappeared in the Mediterranean.[28] Furthermore, a climate of impunity and inaction is accompanying these events. As pointed out by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, “[a]ll countries would throw the full weight of their police forces and justice systems behind an investigation if the victims were their own citizens and were killed by criminal gangs on their own soil. […] The reaction should not be any less rigorous just because the victims are foreigners and the crime took place on the high seas. Yet very few people who kill, rape or rob migrants during their journeys end up in court.”[29] From 1994 to the beginning of October 2013, in the Straits of Sicily at least 7,065 people died, of whom 5,218 are categorized as missing, meaning that their bodies have never been found.[30] This is without taking into account shipwrecks that are unrecorded because nobody witnessed them.[31]

For most migrants and refugees, reaching Italy does not mean ending their journey, or being finally safe. Most are actually heading to other EU countries, and people disappear after their arrival in the Peninsula. Italy’s Ministry of Labour of disclosed alarming data regarding under-age migrants and refugees: in 2014, 3,707 of them disappeared from migrant centres in the country;[32] 1,882 unaccompanied minors disappeared in Sicily only, out of 4,628 registered.[33] The Ministry of Interior established a dedicated unit to prevent underage minors entering illegal networks, including prostitution networks. Christopher Hein, the president of the Italian Council for Refugees, has highlighted the fact that underage migrants who go missing are at risk of being caught up in criminal exploitation networks.[34]

Outlining the issue of missing migrants on the so-called Balkan Route is even more problematic. The Western Balkans have recently become a transit route for migrants coming to EU countries from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa heading, together with thousands of Kosovar migrants seeking asylum in Hungary, Austria or Germany.[35] Migrants usually arrive by boat or land from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria or Cyprus: compared to 2013, detections of transiting non-European irregular migrants increased by 35 percent, with significant differences in terms of countries of origin. Namely, the region saw a sharp decline in the number of migrants from North and West Africa (-90 percent and -71 pwercent, respectively) and also from Pakistan (-89 percent), while sharp increases were registered with regard to citizens of Syria and Afghanistan (+363 percent and +168 percent, respectively).[36] The number of persons coming from the territory of Kosovo* registered the most prominent increase over the entire range of nationalities detected for illegal border-crossing, especially during the second half of 2014. In fact, in 2014 there were almost four times as many illegal border-crossings by Kosovo* citizens (+268 percent) and over twice as many Kosovo* asylum seekers (33,400, or 134 percent more) as in 2013.[37]

The Balkan Route stretches from Greece to Hungary via Macedonia and Serbia and is becoming the fastest-growing smuggling route, as well as the second half of the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey, since once reaching Greece, asylum-seekers cannot easily reach other EU states except through the former Yugoslav countries of Macedonia and Serbia: Hungary is then the EU opening for travel by road or rail to Germany and France.[38] As reported by UNHCR and IOM, part of the movement of migrants and refugees to, within and from the region takes place either via clandestine entry on border crossing points or via illegal border crossing.[39] These irregular movements and associated transnational crime, such as people trafficking, constitute security threats and hamper access to protection for those who need it, exposing migrants and refugees to safety risks and severe human rights violations.[40] People trafficking is one of the major issues in Western Balkan countries today, mostly for purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labour: trafficking takes place internally, within the region and across borders, in particular towards Greece, Italy, Spain and Western Europe.[41]

NGOs and mass media have reported the conditions and the suffering that migrants and refugees had to endure during their journey: Human Rights Watch, for example, interviewed migrants and asylum seekers who described violent assaults, threats, insults, and extortion, denial of the required special protection for unaccompanied children, and summary returns to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia perpetrated by police in Serbia.[42] Some families and unaccompanied children said they had been turned away when they tried to register as asylum seekers and were sleeping outside in the bitter cold.[43] They travel for weeks until they are exhausted, in some cases as far as 1,600 miles by boat, train, car and on foot, hoping not to end up in the hands of gangs armed with guns and lead pipes that roam the woods of Macedonia, beating and robbing migrants.[44] Not to lose their way, they walk along railway tracks: in April this year, 14 migrants died in these circumstances.[45] Some are simply left behind because they cannot keep up with the rest of the group.[46]

[1] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. PROTECT HUMANITY. Behind migration statistics, there are lives, available at: (accessed 28 June 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Forced migration: the dynamics of displacement and response, available at: (accessed 28 June 2015).

[4] International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration. Geneva, Switzerland, 2014. Available at: (accessed 29 June 2015). 11.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] UNHCR, Sea arrivals to Italy, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[11] UNHCR, Sea arrivals to Southern Europe, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tosi, Cecilia. La jeep, la Libia, il barcone: viaggio in Italia dal Corno d’Africa, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[16] Ibid.

[17] International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Fatal Journeys. 40.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Del Grande, Gabriele. La fortezza, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[20] Ibid.

[21] UNHCR, Latest deaths on Mediterranean highlight urgent need for increased rescue capacity, 15 April 2015, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[22] UNHCR, Sea arrivals to Italy, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[23] Amnesty International. 2015, The Global Refugee Crisis: a Conspiracy of Neglect, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015). 19.

[24] Amnesty International, 2015, Europe’s Sinking Shame, the failure to save refugees and migrants at sea, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[25] Amnesty International. 2015, The Global Refugee Crisis. 20.

[26] Ibid.

[27] International Organization for Migration (IOM). Missing migrants project, available at: , (accessed 29 June 2015).

[28] La Repubblica. Nel Mediterraneo un morto ogni 2 ore mai così tante vittime nei naufragi, 21 April 2015, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[29] United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Bring “Mediterranean mass murderers” to justice – UN Human Rights Chief, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[30] Del Grande, Gabriele. Nel Canale di Sicilia 7.065 tra morti e dispersi dal 1994, October 2013, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Il Sole 24 Ore, 13 January 2015. Migranti, arrivi triplicati nel 2014. E Alfano lancia l’allarme sui minori: oltre 3700 scomparsi dai centri, available at:–200026.shtml?uuid=ABhpRLdC&refresh_ce=1 (accessed 29 June 2015).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Polchi, Vladimiro. Migranti, 3707 minori scomparsi nel 2014 dai centri di accoglienza, 13 January 2015, available at: (accessed 29 June 2015).

[35] Lughofer, Katar ína. Increased Illegal Border Crossings a Concern in Western Balkans, 23 February 2015, available at: (accessed 30 June 2015).

[36] FRONTEX. Western Balkans Annual Risk Analysis 2015, Warsaw, May 2015, available at: (accessed 30 June 2015). 5.

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

[37] FRONTEX. Western Balkans Annual Risk Analysis 2015. 5.

[38] Bennett, Dalton & Pogatchnik, Shawn. European dreams become nightmares: Africans seeking new life make epic trek through Balkans’ back door, The Associated Press, 27 March 2015, available at: (accessed 30 June 2015).

[39] UNHCR & IOM. Refugee Protection and International Migration in the Western Balkans. Suggestions for a Comprehensive Regional Approach, available at: (accessed 30 June 2015). 2.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid. 3.

[42] Human Rights Watch (HRW). Serbia: Police Abusing Migrants, Asylum Seekers: Beaten, Extorted, Shoved Back Across the Border, 15 April 2015, available at: (accessed 30 June 2015).

[43] Ibid.

[44] Faiola, Anthony. Exodus: one family journey from Aleppo to Austria, Washington Post, 26 June 2015, available at: (accessed 30 June 2015).

[45] International Organization for Migration (IOM). Missing migrants project.

[46] Bennett, Dalton & Pogatchnik, Shawn. European dreams become nightmares.