The migrant crisis: rough seas in the Mediterranean

29 May 2015
Author: Leigh Daynes

Europe is facing its largest migration crisis since World War II.

In 2014, 219,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean to flee conflict and broken economies, looking to build productive happy lives in Europe. This crisis is rooted in two things: the unbearable hardships people face just outside Europe, and the exclusive migration policies that give them no alternative but dangerous passage.

Not a new problem

This crisis hasn’t just begun. Since 1988, more than 16,500 migrants have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. But the volume of hopeless people, desperately fleeing oppression and conflict, is cause for new concern. With the Arab Spring and the rise of new conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, the situation is even more grave.  Last year alone 3,500 died at sea, and that distressing figure has already topped 1,750 this year – more than eight 737 jetliners full of people. Because records are kept poorly or not at all, we can assume this total is underestimated.

Fire fighting

The charity I work for, Doctors of the World, has established programmes on the Greek Islands of Lesvos, Chios and Tilos where the infrastructure simply cannot handle the influx of migrants. So far in 2015, Lesvos alone has seen a 600% increase of third country nationals arriving compared to the same time in 2014. We’re providing health screenings, pharmaceutical care and psychosocial support, as well as basic items like soap and sanitary napkins. We also coordinate cleaners to ensure garbage removal and hygienic living conditions.

More than 60 per cent of the migrants landing in Greece are Syrian, coming from situations of violent conflict and extreme poverty, with few safe ways to find assistance or protection. Others come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia – nations plagued by years of brutal conflict and hardship.

Migrants have specific needs and face unique vulnerabilities throughout their challenging journeys, often starting in their home countries, where the health infrastructure has been decimated and basic primary care has been intermittent. Surprisingly, however, most migrants leave their homes quite healthy. The most common diseases identified by our health workers in the Greek reception centres are linked to the dangerous paths migrants take: upper respiratory infections, acute stomach problems, musculoskeletal diseases and anxiety disorder.

Though many migrants leave their homelands to escape violence and oppression, our doctors have heard harrowing accounts of racist attacks on arrival in Europe. Atash* from Iran crossed the Mediterranean only to be attacked in Athens, where his assailants brutally beat him and bit off his ear. Europe can and must do more to protect the most vulnerable who reach its shores, and practice the inclusivity it preaches.

The Mediterranean has emerged in recent years as the most dangerous of the world’s four major sea routes in use by migrants. To address these pressing concerns, Doctors of the World is exploring the provision of emergency medical treatment at sea. Moving forward, we will take the utmost care to work collaboratively with existing humanitarian and public actors.

A political solution

Meanwhile, in the UK, politicians looking for a quick ratings boost have normalised the idea that immigration is a threat to British services and identity. But in reality, precisely the opposite is true. Multiculturalism brings significant economic and cultural benefits. It is unacceptable that the UK has only resettled 187 refugees from Syria since the start of the conflict, more than four years ago. Humanitarian and development groups must continue their advocacy work, applying pressure to the policymakers who can change the exclusive policies that perpetuate dangerous behaviours. 

EU governments must act to save those in distress - both immediately, to support rescue missions for migrants adrift in the sea, and long-term, to find a sustainable way to shelter asylum-seekers and refugees. Although we must end the apparent immunity with which people smugglers operate their vile trade, military action to destroy the ships that conduct their human cargo alone is superficial. It does nothing to address the root causes of these transit deaths, and even less to ensure that migrants already in Europe are treated with the tolerance they deserve. A permanent political solution is integral to ending this crisis.

*not his real name

Photo credit: Sara Prestianni/Noborder Network. License.

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About the author

Leigh Daynes
Doctors of the World UK

Executive Director at Doctors of the World UK