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Why the 500 refugees killed in last week's shipwreck may be part of a 'new normal'

Posted April 24

Up to 500 migrants may have died in a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea last week when an overcrowded vessel capsized, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

"My wife and baby drowned in front of me," one of the 41 survivors told the BBC. The migrants, who were fleeing Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Egypt, had paid a smuggler to take them by boat from Libya's northern coast to Italy.

Rather than feeling relief and joy at seeing dry land in Greece following their rescue, however, the survivors were angry and at first refused to disembark, the BBC reported, because they wanted to reach Italy, not Greece.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants stranded in Greece are set to be turned away under a recent deal struck between the EU and Turkey. The deal has made entering Europe through Greece less viable, squeezing migration flows westward as refugees and migrants seek new routes into Europe.

Instead of the short sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, more migrants are attempting the longer — and more deadly — Libya-to-Italy and Morocco-to-Spain crossings, according to Quartz.

The number of refugees who attempted to cross to Italy during the first three months of 2016 was 85 percent higher than in 2015, Newsweek reported, with 18,795 people so far this year undertaking the voyage that claims the lives of 1 in 92 people who attempt it.

The regular flow of migrants across the Mediterranean is a "new normal," Daniela Segreto, who leads a special initiative for immigration in Sicily, told Quartz. “It’s an unstoppable phenomenon that we can only try and manage."

In anticipation of increasing numbers attempting the Libya crossing, the EU is continuing anti-trafficking operations in the Mediterranean Sea, turning over suspected smugglers to Italian authorities and destroying their boats, according to Newsweek. But the EU is not allowed within 69 miles of the Libyan coast, and many smugglers abandon boatloads of refugees at the edge of Libyan waters before turning back to Libya, where they are unlikely to be arrested.

One solution, according to UNHCR, would be to create more regular pathways for the admission of refugees into Europe, "including resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes, family reunification, private sponsorship and student and work visas for refugees. These will all serve to reduce the demand for people smuggling and dangerous irregular sea journeys."

In a May 2015 Ted Talk, Melissa Fleming, head of communications for UNHCR, recounted the harrowing story of Doaa, a young Syrian refugee who survived for four days floating in the Mediterranean before she was rescued after a similar accident.

Fleming asked: "What if she didn't have to take that risk? Why did she have to go through all that? Why wasn't there a legal way for her to study in Europe? ... Why is there no massive resettlement program for Syrian refugees, the victims of the worst war of our times? The world did this for the Vietnamese in the 1970s. Why not now? Why is there so little investment in the neighboring countries hosting so many refugees? And why, the root question, is so little being done to stop the wars, the persecution and the poverty that is driving so many people to the shores of Europe?

"One thing is for sure, that no refugee would be on those dangerous boats if they could thrive where they are. And no migrant would take that dangerous journey if they had enough food for themselves and their children. And no one would put their life savings in the hands of those notorious smugglers if there was a legal way to migrate."

The tragedy last week happened almost exactly one year to the day after the worst recorded sea accident since the beginning of the migrant crisis.

"It is a haunting coincidence and a reminder of just how desperate people are — not (only) to escape war but to escape from poverty," wrote Will Ross for the BBC. "As for the traffickers who are making money overloading the boats — are they not mass murderers, too?"

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