Refugees At Sea: Why Migrants Are Risking Their Lives For A Chance At EU Asylum

Photo courtesy of Takver via Flickr

Europe is often a safe haven for desperate refugees and migrants. In fact, it’s attractive enough for thousands to put their lives in danger just to get there.

Conflict and instability in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere is repelling more and more people from their countries of origin, most often in the direction of Europe, an attractive place to start anew.

This creates a situation where refugees are expelled from their homes — whether by choice or by force — and are then thrust into dangerous situations in route to their destinations.

Here are 5 facts that help explain the dangerous flight of refugees today, and what it means.

1. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 348,000 migrants risked their lives at sea worldwide in 2014.

Specifically, Europe-bound refugees hit a record 207,000 since January of 2014 – almost three times the previous known high of about 70,000 in 2011.

Most refugees are from Syria, Eretria, and Afghanistan; others come from Russia, Serbia, Iraq and elsewhere due to instability in their home regions.

2. Nearly 4,272 migrants globally have died searching while seeking refuge in 2014, compared to 700 in 2013.  

Of the 2014 toll, 3,419 are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean passage between Europe and North Africa.


Hundreds more Italy-bound refugees aboard unmanned vessels were lucky to be rescued by the Italian Navy before befalling any harm.

3.  The number of asylum applications received in 2014 in EU States has risen by nearly 25 percent compared to the same period in 2013.

In the first half of 2014, 38 European countries recorded 264,000 asylum applications, an increase of 24 percent compared to the same period of 2013.


[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”vxLMwiPlw2lioAHvRbgVX1qkhwZvWHql”]About a quarter of these applicants were minors, according to EU data from the first quarter of 2014.

Of asylum applicants, 44 percent of decisions allowed refugee status or protection. Of those from Syria, 97 percent were. Those from Serbia were not so lucky, with a 98 percent rejection rate.

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The most common entry points are coastal nations Italy and Greece, however, the most popular destinations in which refugees seek and achieve asylum in Europe are Germany, France, and Sweden.

4. The EU, facing its worst economic crisis since World War II, is less than ideally equipped financially and policy-wise to deal with the influx.

Lifesaving measures have been slashed along with funding for search and rescue. Many EU member state’s policies call for the forcible return, detention, or penalization of refugees.

Fortunately, the Italian government’s Mare Nostrum operation, launched in 2013 in spite of its economic strife, has rescued over 100,000 people from the sea since its start.

5. “People smugglers” taking advantage of refugees are an increasing concern.

Many of the refugees taking risky trips across the Mediterranean do so at the hands of people smugglers, who turn profit by selling tickets that will illegally and unsafely transport refugees by boat promising pickup by the Italian Navy.

What can be done?

Going forward, the UNHCR has a strategy to improve the situation.

Plans are underway to continue saving more lives from loss at sea through the Central Mediterranean Sea Initiative (CMSI), building and maintaining more effective asylum and protection systems, and creating more resettlement solutions for displaced people.

The root of the issue, being displacement caused by instability in developing nations, may be more difficult to overcome — but also more worthwhile in the long run in.

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Jennifer Markert