EXPLAINER: Fewer people are crossing the Mediterranean; many are still dying

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ROME (AP) – The successive shipwrecks of migrant smuggling boats off Greece have put renewed spotlight on the perils of the Mediterranean migration route, the risks migrants and refugees are willing to take and the political infighting that has thwarted a safe European response to people fleeing war, poverty and climate change.

Here is a look at the migration situation across the Mediterranean:

WHAT HAPPENED TO TWO SMUGGLER BOATS OFF GREECE?

Bodies floated among splintered rubble off a Greek island on Thursday as the death toll from the separate sinking of two migrant boats rose to 22, with about a dozen still missing. The ships crashed hundreds of miles apart, in one case leading to dramatic overnight rescue efforts as islanders and firefighters dragged shipwrecked migrants up steep cliffs to safety.

The Greek shipwrecks came just days after Italy marked the ninth anniversary of one of the Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwrecks in recent memory, the capsizing of a migrant ship off Lampedusa, Sicily, on October 3, 2013, killing 368 people.

WHAT ARE THE TRENDS IN ARRIVAL OF MEDITERRANEAN MIGRANTS?

So far this year, the International Organization for Migration has registered around 109,000 “irregular” arrivals by land or sea to the Mediterranean countries of Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Malta. This has made immigration a hot political issue in these European Union countries.

UN refugee officials note that the total number of migrants trying to reach Europe by this route has declined over the years to an average of about 120,000 per year. They call that a relatively “manageable” number, especially when compared to the 7.4 million Ukrainians who fled their homes this year to escape Russian invasion and were welcomed by European countries.

“We saw how quickly and how quickly a response came about to deal with this situation in a very humane and commendable way,” said Shabia Mantoo, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Geneva. “If we can see that very concretely in this situation, why can’t it apply to 120,000 people who come to Europe every year?”

Others see Europe’s harsh response to Mediterranean migrants, often from Africa, and its acceptance of Slavic Ukrainian migrants as racist.

HOW DANGEROUS IS THE MEDITERRANEAN?

So far this year, the IOM has reported 1,522 dead or missing migrants in the Mediterranean. Overall, the IOM says 24,871 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean since 2014, although the real figure is likely higher given the number of shipwrecks that are never reported.

“The trip to Italy has proven to be the most dangerous,” said the ISMU foundation in Italy, which conducts research on migration trends.

The migratory route across the central Mediterranean, which takes migrants from Libya or Tunisia north to Europe, is the deadliest known migratory route in the world and is responsible for more than half of the reported deaths in the Mediterranean IOM has tracked since 2014. The route leads to Italy main destination.

WHAT ARE THE DEADEST KNOWN CONTRABAND SHIPWRECKS?

On April 18, 2015, the deadliest known maritime accident in the Mediterranean Sea in living memory occurred when an overcrowded fishing boat collided 77 nautical miles off Libya with a freighter trying to rescue it. Only 28 people survived. At first it was feared that the torso contained the remains of 700 people. Forensic scientists trying to identify all of the dead concluded in 2018 that there were originally 1,100 people on board.

On October 3, 2013, a trawler carrying more than 500 people, many from Eritrea and Ethiopia, caught fire and capsized within sight of an uninhabited island off Italy’s southern island of Lampedusa. Local fishermen rushed to try to save lives. In the end, 155 survived and 368 people died.

A week later, on October 11, 2013, a shipwreck occurred further out at sea, 60 miles south of Lampedusa, in what became known in Italy as the “child slaughter”. In total, more than 260 people died, including 60 children. The Italian weekly L’Espresso published in 2017 the audio recordings of the migrants’ desperate cries for help and the apparent delay in the rescue by the Italian and Maltese authorities.

WHAT ARE OTHER MEDITERRANEAN MIGRATION ROUTES TO EUROPE?

The western Mediterranean route is used by migrants who want to get to Spain from Morocco or Algeria. The eastern Mediterranean route, where shipwrecks occurred off Greece this week, is traditionally used by Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and other non-African migrants who first flee to Turkey and then attempt to reach Greece or other European destinations.

Greece was a key transit point for hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees entering the EU in 2015-16, many fleeing the wars in Iraq and Syria, although numbers fell sharply after the EU and Turkey reached an agreement in 2016 to limit the number of refugees smugglers had achieved. Greece has since tightened its borders, erecting a steel wall along its land border with Turkey. Greece has also been accused by Turkey and some migration experts of pushing back migrants, an accusation it denies.

Greece, for its part, says Turkey has failed to stop smugglers operating on its coast and has used migrants to exert political pressure across the European Union.

HOW DID MIGRATION DIVIDE THE 27 EU NATIONS?

Mediterranean countries have complained for years that they have to shoulder the brunt of receiving and processing migrants, and have long called for other European countries to step in and take them in.

Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European nations rejected an EU plan to share the burden of carrying the migrants.

Human rights groups have condemned how the EU has outsourced the rescue of migrants to the Libyan Coast Guard in recent years, bringing migrants back to horrific camps on land, where many are beaten, raped and mistreated.

“Over the years, the routes have changed, but not the tragedies,” said the Community of Sant’Egidio as they celebrated the Lampedusa 2013 anniversary this week. Working with other Christian groups, the Catholic charity has brought more than 5,000 refugees to Italy via “humanitarian corridors” and is calling for safer crossings to be organized so migrants don’t have to risk dangerous crossings across the Mediterranean with smugglers.

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