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People on the move across the Mediterranean Sea

Overview of the maritime routes to Europe, that have been the focus of media and political attention over the last few years
During the last decade, the Mediterranean Sea has experienced significant flows of irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Following a peak in 2015 and ‘16 when over one million people crossed the sea to reach the shores of Southern Europe, arrivals have been declining significantly. Yet, during 2020, nearly 100,000 people crossed. We can identify three main routes in the Mediterranean, the Western one from West Africa through Morocco to Spain, the central one from East or West Africa via Libya or Tunisia to Italy, and the Eastern one from Asia, the Middle East, but occasionally, also from East Africa via Turkey to Greece.
The Eastern Mediterranean route has been under pressure over the past years despite flows having shifted repeatedly from the island to overland on the Greek Turkish border. In 2008 and early 2009, for example, sea crossings from the Turkish coast to the Aegean Islands were the preferred routes. A sudden change occurred in late 2009, when irregular migrants apprehended on the land border between Greece and Turkey increased by 81%, while those apprehended at sea fell by 70%. In 2012, the roots shifted again with detentions or interceptions falling dramatically at the Greek-Turkish land border, but tripled in 2013 and quadrupled in 2014 on the islands.
The same trend was recorded in 2015 when the sea border, specifically the island of Lesbos, became an important entry point for what has been later called the Balkan route. Over 850,000 people arrived in Greece via this route during 2015. Most people originated from Syria, while smaller numbers arrived from Afghanistan and Iraq. This flow was abruptly stopped at the end of March 2016, after the signature of the EU-Turkey statement, which was based on two principles. First, all migrants arriving in Greece would be returned to Turkey unless their asylum request was accepted. Second, for each Syrian who returned to Turkey, one would resettle within the EU.
The effects of the EU-Turkey statement were immediately visible as the number of arrivals dropped dramatically after March 2016. Looking at data covering the whole period of 2016 up to 2020, we realize that the EU-Turkey statement resulted in a 90% decrease in arrivals in 2019 compared to those of 2015. Let’s now look at the Central Mediterranean route. This route has seen a growing number of irregular arrivals for the last 20 years, meaning it was no stranger to varying numbers of arrivals. It was, however, between 2015 and 2016 that the numbers increased more significantly.
For instance, Italy registered peaks in apprehensions at its sea borders between 2006 and 2007, which then hit an all-time low in 2009 and 2010, after the Italian government signed an agreement with the Gaddafi regime in Libya to push back people who had set sail from the North African coast. Numbers climbed again significantly in early 2011 during and after the Arab Spring. In 2013 and ‘14, arrivals remained high leading to an almost continual state of emergency. Although the numbers arriving in 2015 and ‘16 in Italy were not dramatically different in scale to those of 2014, the composition of the migrant population changed significantly. The period saw a sharp decline in the numbers of Syrian nationals.
By contrast, there was an increase in arrivals of single young men from a range of East and West African countries, fleeing war and insecurity in many cases or looking for a brighter future. It is notable that while the Eastern Mediterranean route via Turkey and Greece included mainly people from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, our rivals along the central Mediterranean route via Libya and Italy came from a variety of countries of origin. Following an increased migration flow in 2017, Italy struck a deal with Libyan authorities and, indirectly, with a range of migrant smuggling groups. The agreement effectively co-opted those last, turning them into border guards and guards at Libyan detention centers.
Disagreement led to a dramatic drop in the departures from Libya and opened a door for wider cooperation between the EU and Libya to limit transit migration through this country and reduce the pressure on Italy’s shores. Despite the deal attracted much concern from the UNHCR and several civil society actors over the fact that Libya is not a safe country, and transit migrants or asylum seekers suffer torture and abuse in Libya’s facilities. In 2020, it was renewed for an additional three years.
Finally, the Western Mediterranean route originates in sub-Saharan Africa and runs through Morocco to reach mainland Spain, either via the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, or across the Strait of Gibraltar, or through the Canary Islands that are also part of Spain. Until 15 years ago, this road was mainly used by Moroccan and Algerian migrants seeking better job opportunities in Europe. In the mid-2000s, it became a preferred route for transit migration from sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this was not the most active route, the combined effect of the Libyan and Turkish deals made so that in 2018, over 57,000 irregular border crossings were recorded on this front. That is more than double the number of arrivals for the previous years.
In 2020, this was the main route for all arrivals to Spain. The Mediterranean Refugee Emergency has been characterized by a series of major shipwrecks that occurred mainly on the central Mediterranean route. At the height of the refugee emergency, over 2,000 deaths were registered along this route among with the deadliest shipwreck with nearly 700 victims in April 2015. Despite decreasing in frequency, the trend persisted in 2020, when the year’s deadliest shipwreck claimed 74 lives off the Libyan coast. In 2021, there were already over 600 deaths. The trip for migrants is perilous, especially for the overloaded vessels that travel from the Libyan coast to southern Italy.
The trip is much longer and more dangerous compared to the short crossing from the Turkish coast to the Aegean Islands. The increase in dead and missing people is, of course, also related to restrictive policies applied in the region, such as the deal struck between Italy and Libya in 2017 we already talked about. Another factor is the overall discrepancy between the desire to migrate or the need to seek asylum on the one hand and the availability of legal channels to do so on the other.
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