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Syrians Fleeing War Risk Death by Boat on the Mediterranean

Aid organizations say 65,000 migrants have crossed to Europe so far this year. But 3,000 have drowned while making the journey.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Over the past year, an increasing number of Syrians have attempted to flee to Europe, crossing the Mediterranean illegally in overcrowded boats at the mercy of smugglers.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says some 65,000 Syrians and Eritreans have arrived in Europe by sea so far in 2014. But the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says almost 3,000 migrants have drowned this year attempting the crossing, up from 700 in 2013.

The organization says the deaths highlight the need for safe, legal routes for Syrians fleeing the crisis, and the need for European countries to restructure their current migration policies with an eye towards reducing the number of refugees lured across the Mediterranean by the promise of asylum.

Joel Millman, a spokesman for the IOM, discusses what motivates Syrians to make the journey – despite the known danger – and what Europe must do to stem the flow.

Syria Deeply: How many people are making the journey to Europe?

Joel Millman: There haven’t been too many cases of successful Syrian asylum seekers in Europe and other countries.

The number of Syrians who have reportedly been rescued at sea is one of the highest numbers out of the approximately 120,000 seen. There have been 16,246 Syrians taken by authorities from shipwrecks through the end of July 2014, and it could be as high as 20,000 by now.

If you don’t have the money, means and knowledge, it is hard to plan a trip like this, but the violence and uncertainty for the future drives people to leave.

Syria has been a shifting security profile. We were seeing a different route to Jordan and Turkey by land, and only recently have we seen big numbers crossing via boat into the Mediterranean. I don’t know how Syrians got to Egypt to get on these boats. It’s not clear to me what the route is – are they flying in from Lebanon to Cairo and coming around to Jordan, and then going through the bottom of Israel?

They pay $4,000 to smugglers to get to Europe, but there are probably other costs to leaving Syria. Sometimes they stop in places and work for a year.

Syria Deeply: What are the conditions like for those taking the journey to Europe?

Millman: We don’t have the access to information in Syria, which is a huge hindrance, but we are seeing the same situation over and over again. People can rebuild like they have a million times, but there is a sense of despair that nothing has changed, that the world is tolerating this conflict, and that they have no choice but to make their move.

The security situation in Syria deteriorated so quickly, and it caught a lot of people off guard. These smuggling networks are mixing promise and coercion to get people on boats and raise money out of them.

It’s an extremely risky voyage. Boats are inadequate; they are filled with too many people. We are hearing more and more that people that balk at getting on the boats are beaten, punished and in some cases stabbed.

The question is how willing are they to get on these boats and be trafficked this way, and to what degree have they been coerced or in fact kidnapped. There are definitely boats getting through, otherwise people wouldn’t be attempting the trip.

We keep hearing: “I begged my nephew not to get on this boat, but he said his friends are already in Italy and safe.” We know that not everyone who gets on the boat is not in danger of losing their lives, but it’s also because of the very aggressive rescue efforts by the Europeans, mostly the Italians. Desperation is feeding the process. It speaks to how desperate people are; it seems like the best option for them.

We don’t know if they are riding off to a certain death, or blazing a trail for resettlement. These sinkings are so severe and common now, that we think they are being stampeded into a dangerous scenario that the people didn’t anticipate when they chose to do this.

Syria Deeply: What’s being done by the international community to stem the smuggling routes?

Millman: You can prosecute for an overall threat against international security – something our organization has called for.

We know that some of the survivors in the latest tragedy have been sequestered as witnesses. We’ve heard that their relatives in the Middle East have been calling to see how their relatives were and whether they reached safely, and some of them have received calls threatening them to stop asking.

Some countries don’t get help from authorities in these cases, and the people are sufficiently intimidated to the point that it will be a hindrance in prosecution.

Syria Deeply: What are the best options to protect Syrians fleeing to Europe?

Millman: Legal safe migration is the best thing. Someone needs to craft a plan to approach legal resettlement, and education needs to be provided in transit countries so that people can be aware of not being coerced into risky voyages. Also, the conditions need to change in the host country, but that’s an insurmountable problem that is hard for the relief agencies to take a hand in.

This is something we hear repeatedly: Patience is running out. People would rather pay for and take a dangerous trip like this, because they believe that the options are better in other countries. Even if it’s a dangerous path, they see it as a clear path.

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