The Deadly Mediterranean Frontier

The phenomena of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into the European Union and the deaths at sea during this perilous part of their journey have a long and tragic history. The first bodies of migrants were found on the European shores at the end of the 1980s, when visas to access the EU’s territory were increasingly denied to the majority of the populations of the global south. Simultaneously, a vast array of bordering practices and techniques, extending ever further within and without EU territory, has been progressively put in place with the aim of blocking those who attempted to circumvent that denial.

Deaths at the Borders of Europe, 1993–2012. Source: Migreurop.

Migration, however, has certainly not stopped; rather, it has continued in an illegalised form.   Over the last 25 years, illegalised migration across the sea has emerged as a structural phenomena, with an average of 50,000 illegalised boat migration crossings per year being recorded throughout the 2000s.   As this data demonstrates, the EU’s policies of closure have not prevented migrants from reaching the territory of the EU. Rather, it has prevented them from doing so with safe and formal means of travel, forcing them to resort to precarious means such as using unseaworthy vessels.

Moreover, as a result of these policies, migrants wishing to enter the EU illegally have had to resort to facilitators of illegalized passage. While this service was often initially provided by fishermen, who might have helped migrants cross the sea as a side activity, with the criminalization of assistance to illegalized migrants, this service has increasingly fallen into the hands of professional smugglers and traffickers who, to varying degrees, might use violent methods and prioritize profit over the provision of security measures.   The practices of smugglers thus constitute a second, crucial factor leading to the deaths of migrants at sea, and changes in their practices may increase or decrease the danger of crossing, as we will see with regards to smugglers in Libya.

The Mediterranean Sea: maritime border of the European Union. Source: Migreurop.

Finally, so as to detect and intercept illegalized migrants, border patrols and surveillance means were deployed by EU member states, Frontex (the European border agency) and states located on the southern shore of the Mediterranean put under pressure by the EU, thus effectively turning the Mediterranean into a vast frontier zone. This militarization on the one hand leads to repeated acts of direct physical violence by border guards – such as shootings, collisions, punctured boats and push-backs. But the most deadly effect of border militarisation is less direct. When migrants perceive the risk of being intercepted and subsequently detained and deported, they seek to evade state control. A key strategy adopted by migrants and smugglers is to change their routes, often to longer and more perilous ones, which cost more lives.   While the relation between increased control, longer routes and increased deaths is not a simple or linear one, what is certain is that over the last 25 years, the militarisation of the EU’s maritime frontier has not succeeded in stopping illegalised crossings, but has caused the splintering of trajectories.

As a consequence of these precarious conditions of crossing, migrants regularly encounter situations of distress – with failing motors, water entering the boat or loss of direction – and call for help from the rescue agencies operating in the area, or from the many vessels transiting in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, because rescuing migrants at sea entails taking responsibility for the processing of the asylum requests or for their deportation in compliance with the Dublin Regulation,   coastal states have been reluctant to assist migrants in distress. While international conventions on the Laws of the Sea have sought to ensure the responsibility to rescue passengers in distress regardless of nationality or status, coastal states use overlapping Search and Rescue (SAR) areas, conflicting conventions and differing interpretation of international law to evade their responsibility.   Further more, the criminalisation of assistance – fisherman for example have been put on trial for “assisting clandestine migration” after rescuing migrants – has also been a disincentive for seafarers to comply with their obligation to provide assistance. As a result, we have witnessed repeated cases of non-assistance, such as that of the “left-to-die boat” case, which we reconstructed in a previous report and that has led to several legal complaints, in which 72 passengers were left to drift for 14 days in an area closely monitored by tens of military assets deployed in the context of the 2011 NATO-led military intervention in Libya.  

Map of maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean. Based on data compiled by and the International Maritime Organization. Design: Forensic Oceanography.

The bordering of the EU’s maritime frontier has thus turned the Mediterranean into a space marked by a deep and long standing mobility conflict characterized by a deeply hierarchised and segmented mobility regime: speedy and secure for certain goods and privileged passengers, slow and deadly for the unwanted. As a result, more than 20,000 migrants’ deaths at sea have been recorded by NGOs since the end of 1980, with deaths at sea becoming the structural outcome of the illegalisation of migrants’ journeys.   Statistical data further indicates an overall tendency towards an increased danger of crossing throughout the 2000s. While deaths at sea and the evolution of the danger of crossing result from interaction between multiple actors and mechanisms, the EU policies of border closure play an over-determining role in their respective practices.