Tragedy in Mediterranean as migrant boats capsize

A boatload of migrants near Lampedusa, where one of last week’s tragedies occurred © Getty Images

Twice in recent days, small boats crammed with refugees have capsized, killing half of their human cargo. Why do people risk these awful voyages? And can anything be done?

Last Friday, a tiny fishing boat was caught in rough seas off the western coast of Turkey. Old, rickety and overburdened, the ship capsized. Its cargo: one hundred illegal immigrants fleeing from war torn lands in the Middle East.

Only the strongest swimmers survived, struggling through the tides to the safety a nearby island. The rest – almost sixty people – were killed. Half of the dead are thought to be children.

Twenty-four hours later and 700 miles to the west, tragedy struck again in eerily similar circumstances. This time the migrants were Africans, many of whom had already travelled hundreds of miles before arriving on the Tunisian coast and setting sail for Europe. Fifty-four were rescued after their boat sank near Sicily; dozens more are thought to have drowned.

These are not just isolated incidents. According to Amnesty International, 1,500 migrants were drowned in the Mediterranean last year in desperate attempts to reach European shores. And it is not only the Mediterranean: the seas surrounding Australia, too, have claimed the lives of hundreds of Southeast Asian immigrants in August alone.

Conditions on these rusting metal boats are nightmarish, with humans packed on board like factory-farmed animals. Yet despite the squalour and the risk, hundreds of thousands of people each year pay enormous sums for a chance to make the voyage. Why?

Because, in most cases, they are fleeing from a homeland in which life has become intolerable. Some have been persecuted by authoritarian governments; others are displaced by war, famine or natural disaster. Whatever these travellers have left behind, it is bad enough to persuade them to abandon everything they know.

Yet when these migrants arrive in Europe or Australia they are unlikely to find a friendly welcome: many are locked up in detention centres by governments unsure how to handle the situation. Those who feel they are in danger if forced to go home can apply for asylum; but there are strict conditions to be met. In the UK, for instance, over 60 percent of asylum seekers are ultimately sent home.

No room at the inn?

Shameful, say refugee activists. These people have traveled hundreds of miles and endured terrible hardships in the hope of finding somewhere safe to start afresh. Yet when they arrive, governments simply lock them up or turn them away. That, they say, is an affront to human decency.

And what, ask politicians, is the alternative? The world is full of troubled places; hundreds of millions people endure suffering and danger every day. We cannot give them all shelter, they say; so some of them simply must be turned away. There is no alternative.

You Decide

  1. Should it be easier or more difficult for people to claim asylum?
  2. Do governments have moral responsibilities towards citizens of other nations?


  1. Imagine you are an asylum seeker who has just arrived in a Western country after a difficult and dangerous trip. Write an account of your journey.
  2. Draw up a charter of rights that you think asylum seekers in a foreign country should have. Are they the same rights as a citizen of that country, or are there differences?

Some People Say...

“I would never leave my country, no matter how bad things got.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should my country have to the deal with the fallout from wars and disasters on other side of the world?
How much responsibility governments have to the citizens of other nations is a complicated and contentious question. But the fact is that we live in a globalised world, in which few problems are totally confined to a single country.
If they’re really just trying to escape from danger, why do they all end up in rich countries?
They don’t. In fact, 80 percent of the world’s refugees live in developing countries. Pakistan has the most, followed by Iran. Syria is close behind, despite the fact that many Syrians are fleeing civil war themselves. This is because these countries are close to areas that have been ravaged by wars – many of which involve Western nations.

Word Watch

War torn lands
Many of the migrants came from Syria, where a bloody civil war is currently raging, causing a refugee crisis in neighbouring lands. Others were from Iraq, where violence is still rife nine years after the US-led invasion, and Palestine, where the tension between Israelis and Arabs causes much strife.
Detention centres
Detention centres for asylum seekers are hugely controversial, because people are held there for significant periods without trial. Some in Britain are run by private security services, and there have been claims of serious abuses taking place within – though those who run the centres deny any wrongdoing.
Asylum seekers
An immigrant (or migrant) is anybody who has left their native country to seek a home elsewhere, for whatever reason. An asylum seeker is somebody who has applied to be given residency in a new country because they are in danger of serious harm. The word ‘refugee’ is technically only applied to those whose asylum application has been successful – though it is often used to describe others as well.

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