More than 45,000 migrants sailed from Africa across the Mediterranean to Italy and Malta in 2013, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). This is the highest number since 2008, with the exception of 2011, the year of the Libyan crisis, according to the IOM. The most commonly identified nationalities were Eritreans and Syrians, followed by Somalis and Egyptians.
Reliable estimates of how many die in the attempt are difficult to come by. More than 20,000 people have drowned in the past 20 years, according to the IOM’s tally. These include 2,300 in 2011 and around 700 in 2013.
The cost of passage aboard a boat sailing from north Africa to Europe can range from $1,000 to $5,000, according to a 2013 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Some families opt to send their children alone or with relatives or friends because of these high costs, the report explained. One reason migrants pay these amounts to make such risky journeys is that legal emigration to Europe is increasingly difficult. Immigration control took centre stage with the 1995 implementation of the European Union’s Schengen Agreement, which abolishes border controls between its members. Europe has transformed itself into a “fortress”, with anti-immigration legislation a centrepiece of foreign and domestic policy, according to sociologists Claudia Finotelli and Giuseppe Sciortino, authors of a 2013 study published in the journal Perspectives on European Politics and Society. Stringent visa regimes, among other restrictions, simply disqualify many aspiring migrants, forcing them to take ever more desperate measures.
"Instead of solving a problem, criminalising migration has made matters worse," Hein de Haas, co-director of the International Migration Institute at Oxford University, wrote last December. It increases refugees’ risks and "dependence on smuggling, and it decreases the chances of getting rescued if they find themselves in perilous situations, because people are afraid to get prosecuted for assisting illegal migrants".