Europe Braces for Nearly Half a Million Migrants

Almost 2,000 people have died trying to cross into Europe this year.
Migrants rescued at sea prepare to disembark from a British ship in Sicily. (Photo: Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)
Jun 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Arthur Bright is The Christian Science Monitor's Europe editor. He lives in Boston.

Nearly 6,000 migrants adrift on the Mediterranean have been rescued by European Union naval vessels, as the annual "boat season" of would-be refugees to Europe threatens to reach new highs.

According to the Italian coast guard, which is coordinating efforts to save migrants attempting to cross the sea from North Africa, a fleet of British, Swedish, Spanish, and Italian ships recovered 2,400 people. An additional 3,500 migrants were recovered on Saturday, including some 1,400 loaded into four boats by smugglers and saved by German naval vessels.

Last weekend was one of the busiest in what promises to be a new peak year of migration across the Mediterranean. Tens of thousands of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East are seeking passage to Europe, driven from their homes by war, oppression, and economic woes, and Libya is the key staging point. It’s estimated that as many as half a million people are in the war-torn country awaiting passage on the rickety boats and inflatable dinghies of smugglers operating there.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that Italy has seen 46,500 arrivals in the first five months of the year, a 12 percent increase compared with the same period last year. Italy expects 200,000 people to reach its shores in 2015, compared with 170,000 in 2014.

This year's boat season has been deadlier by far than previous years. Some 1,800 people died in the first four months of the year, a 20-fold increase from the same period last year. The early spike in fatalities puts 2015 on course to top the 3,500 migrants killed in 2014, itself a record.

The increased flow of refugees into Italy is causing resentment among some locals, particularly in the country's north, home of the anti-immigrant Northern League. Several regional governors have said they will not accept any more "illegal immigrants" sent there by the central government.

British defense secretary Michael Fallon told reporters that Europe needs to destroy smuggling vessels before they set out from Libya. "We need to pool more intelligence, we need to find out who is doing this trafficking, how they are making money from it, and we need to go back and smash the gangs themselves," Fallon said.

Speaking at the Group of Seven summit in Germany, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his government plans to direct foreign aid to the source of the problem—the conditions in the migrants' homelands that are driving them to leave. “Using our aid budget to try and stabilize and improve the security of countries like Eritrea and Somalia, Nigeria, where these people are actually coming from, will help reduce the impact of migration,” Cameron said.

This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor.