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Mediterranean Migrant Shipwreck Reveals Cost of Cruel European Asylum Policies

Eighty-one people have been confirmed dead, but roughly 500 more likely drowned when the ship sank, locked below decks.

A member of the coast guard overlooks survivors as they rest in a warehouse used as a temporary shelter, after a boat carrying hundreds of refugees sank in the Ionian Sea, in Kalamata, Greece, on June 14, 2023.

If you have been reading European news outlets the past several days, you’ll have seen a number of lead stories on the horrific tragedy of a people-smuggling ship, crammed to the gills with migrants hoping to reach European shores from Tobruk, in eastern Libya, sinking off the coast of Greece.

By contrast, most U.S. news organizations have only paid sparing attention to the calamitous event, offering up just a tiny fraction of the coverage that they accord air disasters, or floods and earthquakes in wealthy countries. The low priority given to this by most U.S. news outlets is a visceral demonstration of just how little regard many have for the lives and deaths of migrants. They are, by and large, made invisible.

Roughly 100 people, all men, were rescued by the Greek coast guard when the ship rapidly sank in deep waters in the Ionian Sea off the Greek islands, as it was heading west toward Italy; 81 have been confirmed dead. Yet, the reports state that roughly 500 more, mainly women and children, had been locked belowdecks by the smugglers and did not make it to safety once the ship began to take on water. If that is true, and if those hundreds died, as seems likely, it makes it the one of the most lethal Mediterranean boat sinkings in the past decade.

Photos show that in the days and hours leading up to the disaster, the ship was so crowded that, at times, one couldn’t see the ship’s floor in between the people.

At first, the Greek authorities offered up a story that they had tried to stop the clearly distressed vessel and ask if it needed help, but that the occupants of the overcrowded fishing boat insisted that they wanted to continue on their voyage to Italy; and so, according to this rather implausible narrative, the coast guard just let them continue on their merry way.

Then, after photos and video footage emerged contradicting the official Greek line, as well as interviews with the survivors, the government faced allegations that the coast guard had in fact tried to stop the boat by attaching a rope to it. It now seems likely that the ship, already overloaded and its weight unevenly balanced, may have listed to one side and then sank in the aftermath of the attempt to stop it, though the Greek government continues to deny these allegations.

The story has captured public attention in Europe, where, in recent years, thousands of migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean, trying to make a crossing to safety and better economic opportunities. Since 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis triggered a massive exodus toward Europe, and helped generate people-smuggling networks from the Middle East and north Africa that remain in place today, the annual Mediterranean death toll has veered between a high of more than 5,000 in 2016 to a low of roughly 1,500 in 2020, during the pandemic. Last year, more than 2,400 are known to have died. This year, at least in part because of the huge toll from last week’s disaster, the numbers could well exceed this.

Other countries, too, have come under intense criticism in recent months from human rights and immigrant rights groups after their coast guards also failed to respond to migrant ships in distress. Italy, under far right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, has been particularly slow to send aid to such vessels attempting to reach European shores.

Europe has increasingly started locking down against asylum seekers: Italy has begun refusing to let migrant rescue ships dock. France, which had reached an agreement to take 3,500 asylum seekers currently in Italy, recently pulled back on the deal. And the U.K. is trying to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda on a one-way ticket. As this European hostility toward asylum seekers intensifies, the passage across the Mediterranean has become even more lethal than the desert that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.

Like the U.S., with its “Remain in Mexico” policies, and its policies of turning back many asylum seekers, in recent years, who haven’t sought asylum in the countries through which they journeyed, European countries, after the huge influx of asylum seekers in 2015, have become increasingly willing to push the asylum “problem” onto neighbors or poorer, far-off countries, even as large numbers continue to protest these brutal policies. None of this bodes well for those seeking refuge in Europe or the U.S.

While large numbers of Ukrainian refugees have been admitted at speed since early 2022, for refugees from other global hotspots, smuggling routes are becoming ever-deadlier, and the conditions they are held in upon arrival in Europe or the U.S. are frequently awful.

One of the world’s most trafficked routes by those seeking to flee wars and economic and ecological disasters for sanctuary in the affluent north, the Mediterranean lures both the desperate and those willing to cash in on their despair. Smugglers are reported to charge up to $6,000 per person on overcrowded boats such as the one that sank off of Greece last week; and, as with the “coyotes” who frequently abandon those they are smuggling north into the U.S., they don’t stand by their clients when the ships run into trouble, due to weather, the coast guard or military interventions.

Yet, while the smugglers and the cartels for which they work are clearly brutal, the crisis goes far beyond this — to the systemic inequalities that lead to smuggling in the first place, and to the governments that have at least tacitly approved extralegal means of dealing with would-be asylum seekers.

Last month, Greek authorities ran into a buzzsaw of criticism from activists after an Austrian migrants rights group filmed the coast guard taking a group of asylum seekers out to sea and dumping them in an inflatable raft on the edge of Greece’s territorial waters. They subsequently washed ashore in Turkey. The new conservative government in Greece has also pushed to build walls around camps holding asylum seekers and has increased its border patrols. Ostensibly part of a “modernization” program for the camps, the new concrete walls go further down the road of criminalizing asylum seekers and treating them as de facto prisoners. The conservative government has also begun reinforcing and expanding a land-border fence with Turkey.

More and more people around the world are seeking respite from wars, from grinding poverty, from the ceding of state authority to gangs and cartels, and from climate change and other environmental stresses. Yet, at the moment, the Global North’s response is to largely batten down the hatches, pushing the marginalized into increasingly dangerous smuggling routes, ever further off the beaten path. The adults and children who died last week were treated as “collateral damage” in this brutal global game. And yet, for much of the U.S. mainstream media, this was a nonevent, a tragedy far from our shores that merited only a few short articles before our collective attention shifted, as it inevitably does, to the next news cycle.

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