Among the issues that defined 2015, migration stands out as one of the most extreme. Over a million people tried to cross the Mediterranean into Europe in rubber dinghies, desperate to escape their home countries and willing to risk the dangers of the journey. Underscoring these tales were tragic reports of death: capsized boats harboring hundreds of people, the Pope's reference to the Mediterranean as a "vast cemetery," the heartbreaking photos of Alan Kurdi, the toddler who drowned during his family's attempt to leave Syria.
But there's an upside: Migration in 2015 was actually safer than the previous year. Although the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean was the highest ever recorded in a single year, the percentage who made it ashore safely was also a record-high. That's due in part to efforts by volunteers who risked their own safety, and sometimes criminal charges, to save over 8,000 migrants from drowning at sea last year.
In 2015, 3,771 migrants died crossing into Southern Europe. The number is staggering—even higher than the number of migrants who were reported dead by authorities in Italy, Malta, Spain, Gibraltar, and Greece in the entire period between 1990 and 2003. At the same time, 1,014,836 migrants successfully crossed the Mediterranean by boat. It's the largest number on record with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and proportionate to those who died, the number of people who reached land safely is quite high: For every 10,000 people who crossed, 37 died.
In 2014, comparatively, the IOM counted 3,279 people who died in the Mediterranean, which is a similar death toll but from a smaller group of 280,000 migrants. Of every 10,000 of these, about 117 died.
Thirty-seven deaths for every 10,000 people is still tragic, but it's nearly 70 percent fewer than the year before. If the 2014 death rate had held up in 2015, nearly 12,000 people would have died en route to Europe last year.
What accounts for all these lives saved? IOM spokesperson Kelly Namia attributes it in part to smaller boats and a shorter route to Greece, rather than the longer and more dangerous trip from North Africa to Lampedusa, Italy. "It is much easier for the Hellenic Coast Guard to rescue people," she told me over the phone.
But activists, too, play a role in guiding migrants to safety. Temple Moore, an American volunteer and my classmate at the Harvard Program on Refugee Trauma, has been on the island of Lesvos since early December. In that time, an activist group she works with, Solidarity Team Platanos, has intercepted boats nearly every day. She says it's groups like hers, not the state, who are helping the new arrivals safely reach the shore.
"We try to get them dry as soon as possible," she told me. "Everyone always has wet feet and it's been very cold, so there's been a lot of effort to get dry socks and shoes and pants and other clothing."
The team has one of several rescue boats that ply the waters off Lesvos. "Most of the northern coastline of Lesvos is rocky and inaccessible for landing," said Iasonas Apostolopoulos, who works with Moore. "Our main task is to escort and guide the refugee boats to safe areas where they can disembark safely."
When migrant boats aren't operational or safe, activists tow boats to the shore. "The worst scenario is when people are already in the water and the boat has sunk," Apostolopoulos said. "We have collected around 80 people from the water in three different cases."
Apostolopoulos estimates that his team alone has guided 350 boats to shore, and towed about 15 more. But because the work is informal and on a volunteer basis, no one is keeping an official record.
Watch Vice News' documentary series, Europe or Die, which chronicles the efforts of those risking their lives to reach Europe and the forces tasked to keep them out.
If an obvious solution to migrant deaths, the activists are also a source of contention. Contrary to Namia's claim, Moore says the Hellenic Coast Guard often interferes with volunteer-led rescues. "If the activists weren't doing it, then these people would be not saved because [EU border patrol] Frontex and the Coast Guard really don't intervene. They're not responsive like they should be, they don't intervene as much as they should, they don't have [enough of a] presence to support the boats that are coming in at the same time."
The situation she describes is one that the IOM itself acknowledged in a 2014 report, Fatal Journeys. In the report, Amsterdam-based researchers Thomas Spijkerboer and Tamara Last point out that "as a result of disputes between state authorities over the location of rescue and disembarkation responsibilities, migrants also run the risk of not being rescued. Distress calls have been known to go unanswered or ignored."
Worse, the report adds that authorities often prevent others from assisting, even when lives are at stake. "Private vessels may not assist a migrant boat in distress... because they fear their assistance may lead to arrest and prosecution for supposedly assisting illegal immigration."
Moore has seen these charges firsthand. When we spoke, she had just returned from a court hearing for other activists, who had been charged with human trafficking for assisting in rescues off Lesvos.
"Two days ago, they arrested and charged [informal rescue groups] Proem-Aid and Team Humanity with [assisting illegal immigration]," Moore told me. "Interestingly, Team Humanity was working with the police. They would call the Coast Guard, they'd try and wait for the go-ahead, but sometimes they'd call and call and there's no answer. And you can't just let a boat go down."
What is clear to all on Lesvos is that the migrants are unlikely to stop coming. In recent weeks, the media has characterized migrants as making a "last-ditch effort" to reach European shores, but neither the onset of winter nor repeated visits from riot police have shut down sea-bound journeys. Over 112,000 people arrived on Greek shores in December—ten times the previous year's rate—and in the first 18 days of January, 31,381 more have come.
Namia, the IOM spokesperson, noted that 50 people attempting to reach Greece have already drowned this year. But if this pace holds, over 638,000 people will cross the Mediterranean into Europe by the end of 2016 and 1,300 will die—tragic, but possibly even more safe voyages than last year.
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