Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Deadly sea migration from MENA region on the rise

A woman reacts on September 23, 2022, in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli as she kissed the photograph of her son.
A woman reacts on September 23, 2022, in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli as she kissed the photograph of her son who drowned a day earlier, in a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon that sank off the Syrian coast. Fathi AL-MASRI / AFP

Dana Hourany

94 bodies were recovered after a boat sailing from Lebanon capsized off the coastal city of Tartus, Syria on Friday. 170 migrants from Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian nationalities were reported onboard with many being children.

Eyewitnesses described the bodies to have been deformed beyond recognition due to extreme water-retention from drowning. The actual death toll remains uncertain as more people are still missing. 

A similar accident occurred in April when a migrant boat capsized off the Lebanese city of Tripoli killing scores of migrants whose bodies remain trapped in the Mediterranean seabed. However, the Tartus incident is reported to be the deadliest among the rising wave of sea migration from the MENA to Europe.

Samir Abou Stita was only three years old when he passed away from dehydration on a boat near the Island of Malta, a few weeks ago. The boy was part of a group of migrants that took to the sea in early September to escape the turmoil of Lebanon’s worsening living conditions.

Unfortunately for the child’s family and their 60 Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian companions, they were left stranded for days aboard a leaking fishing boat without provisions and prospects to reach Italy.

Though three children had already passed away, an Egyptian cargo ship eventually rescued the migrants and supplied them with food, water, and medicine.

High records of boat migration were first recorded around 2014 and 2015 when the Syrian conflict reached its peak. Millions of Syrians were able to seek sanctuary in Europe by sea and according to foreign rescue groups, recent numbers are on par with those of 2015. However, situations have changed and policies have become tougher on migrants.

Rescue groups warn of compounded violence that will be inflicted on sea migrants if the EU doesn’t uphold its humanitarian responsibilities and doesn’t tackle the exodus firsthand.

For years, EU states have been tightening their border control policies to contain what they label as illegal migration. However, this does not put an end to migration via the Mediterranean or the Sahara. It only puts people at further risk of violence and forces them into more hazardous routes,” Wasil Schauseil, Communications Coordinator at SOS humanity, a German non-governmental search and rescue organization told Fanack. 

What’s happening in MENA countries?

Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa region are facing deteriorating economic, environmental, and social conditions. According to Consolidated Rescue Group and Humanitarian Relief, most migrant boats come from Syria, Palestine, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, and recently, Tunisia and Lebanon. 

Iraqis, Yemenis, Kurds, and Sub-Saharan Africans are also joining the ranks of sea migrants. 

Despite distinct circumstances and separate political contexts, Levantine countries face similar economic troubles. Lebanon’s local currency has depreciated by more than 90 percent against the US dollar. Unemployment and poverty rates continue to soar as people remain locked out of their bank deposits. 

War-torn Syria has endured displacement, conflict, and the collapse of economic activities which have decreased household welfare and depleted livelihood opportunities. Palestine witnessed economic growth in 2021 that was concentrated in the West Bank while Gaza suffered from deepened economic blows coupled with high unemployment rates and brutal aggressions by the Israeli Forces. 

In North Africa, the Egyptian pound is approaching an all-time low as the country’s net international reserves (NIRs) declined by $230 million in July to post $33.1 billion, down from $33.3 billion at the end of June 2022, according to the Egyptian news website, Ahramonline. Tunisia is facing rising political tensions and worrying food shortages as prospects of authoritarianism threaten the country’s freedoms. 

As for oil-rich Iraq and Libya, the latter suffers from soaring unemployment rates and a paralyzed private sector unable to generate job opportunities, in addition to the scarcity of goods in the wake of the civil war. Iraq is struggling with an intensified political deadlock driven by Shia political rivals incapable of forming a government urgently needed for economic reforms.

The Russian war on Ukraine as well has further compounded the situation across the region by raising inflation rates globally and causing shortages in gas and wheat imports. Turkey, once a sanctuary for refugees and home to five million Arabs, is also struggling with price hikes and increased racism towards Syrian refugees, driving the displaced once more towards tiresome routes of immigration. 

Misplaced EU funds 

Official data on this year’s sea migrants has yet to emerge. Undocumented crossings as well as missing boats make accurate documentation challenging. 

However, in the UNHCR’s latest data visualization figures, 3.231 were found dead or missing at sea last year, noting a significant rise from 2020.

In a September press release, SOS stated that “after four rescues in seven days, there are 415 survivors on board the rescue ship Humanity 1, almost half of them are minors. Their health condition is increasingly deteriorating.”

Despite constantly demanding a place of safety, authorities remain unresponsive and migrants have no place to disembark as supplies start to run out.

Schauseil notes the EU-funded Libyan coastguard, which the European Commission poured millions of euros into, was behind the pullbacks of 32.425 people in 2021 and at least 14.157 people in just the first half of this year, though numbers could be higher.

In Mid-September the European Commission confirmed that it will provide the Egyptian coast guard with €80 million to “search and rescue and border surveillance at land and sea borders.”

The European Commission has previously championed a Solidarity Platform pact that is supposed to create a mechanism for refugee relocation upon arrival to the EU. Yet, Schauseil says that “these ad-hoc mechanisms are not enough. In a first pledge, Germany has agreed to relocate 3.500 people, which is less than the number of weekly arrivals in Italy in September this year.”

“Southern European countries, where refugees first disembark, have been relentlessly requesting aid and support from Northern and central European countries to help relocate and provide safe havens for refugees, yet little has been done,” he added. 

The stakes are rising as desperate individuals continue to board hazardous boats in search of a better life.

More migrants, more violence

Once notified of a boat in distress, rescue groups are forced to notify authorities who would ideally perform the rescue missions themselves. For this reason, smugglers deter migrants from contacting rescue teams, claiming they would hand migrants to authorities, explains a member of the Consolidated Rescue Group and Humanitarian Relief, Taim*, whose last name has been omitted for privacy concerns. 

“Before 2019, smugglers used to keep us informed of incoming boats but they have stopped in recent years for reasons unknown to us,” he said. 

According to Taim, traffickers frequently seize and toss the migrants’ smartphones into the water. Only individuals who are adept at hiding their phones are capable of making calls to relatives, who in turn alert the rescue teams if the boat is in distress.

He recounts the incident of the 60 migrants from the Lebanese boat whose smuggler lied to family members saying they had arrived on land when they were still adrift at sea.

“As the number of migrants increases, so does the level of violence. Greece’s coast guards are currently dispersed around the Mediterranean Sea and will not hesitate to return migrants to their countries of origin or push them in a different direction altogether,” Taim added.

Schauseil says that some of the 414 people rescued during the first operation of SOS Humanity’s new vessel,” the Humanity 1″, show signs of violence they most likely have sustained during their dangerous journey.

Taim claims that some European authorities conduct further torture by forcefully detaining the migrants, inflicting physical violence while denying them medical care. On top of being robbed and deported, the worst cases, he says, are those left to drown by neglectful authorities who choose inaction.

Forced to leave, never to look back 

After being without food and water for more than 10 days, a group of migrants was seen in a video published by Syria TV on Twitter flinging the bodies of their deceased relatives into the Mediterranean while Frontex planes flew overhead.

“We’re mixing toothpaste with seawater to be able to drink it,” one Syrian migrant lamented.

Taim says the process of applying for asylum has become increasingly difficult as bureaucratic decisions can take up to several years. Some countries detain migrants for over a month without family contact, he claims, yet “some people believe that once they have made it into European lands, there’s no point in turning back.”

Meanwhile, an influx of migrants is entering the United Kingdom via the French coast of Calais, he adds. Each European country has a sea portal that smugglers are aware of and charge up to $8,000 for, compared to the $500 – $1000 fee at the height of the Syrian conflict in 2015.

“We only wish that the people would contact us, not because we can help them with the routes, but because we can give them basic survival tips such as using rescue tires instead of life vests for their capacity to keep people afloat for longer,” Taim said. “We can also help with navigation if they provide us with locations.”

Though it is a dangerous voyage, for many people it is the only option. You have to realize that no one takes their children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land, to paraphrase the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. For many people, one death is preferable to a thousand.

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