Migrant Deaths in the Mediterranean and the Failure of the European Union

September 1, 2021
Tina Al-khersan
Third-year law student at the University of Michigan Law School.

In 2011, a dinghy with 72 migrants traveling from Libya to Lampedusa ran into a series of challenges related to a lack of fuel and food. Despite being within reach of Spanish and Italian military vessels, no one rescued the people on the dinghy, and all but nine migrants died.[1] The devastating governmental failure resulted in international condemnation, yet not much had changed four years later when Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Kos.[2] As the images of the toddler’s body circulated online, governments again condemned the conditions that forced migrants to cross the sea.

This cycle, in which migrants die in the Mediterranean and the European Union (EU) pledges to improve conditions, continues today. Thus far in 2021, an estimated 815 people have died in the Mediterranean,[3] and these deaths represent a fraction of the individuals who have made the perilous journey in recent years.[4] Instead of responding with humane policies that welcome refugees, states in the EU have devised increasingly creative and violent policies to keep migrants out of Europe.

For example, as recently as mid-May, approximately 6,000 to 8,000 individuals left Morocco in attempt to reach two Spanish enclaves.[5] In a matter of days, Spain sent 5,600 migrants back to Morocco and tightened their border patrol.[6] Advocates were quick to point out that the speed with which Spain sent migrants back indicated that individualized assessments were not being carried out in violation of European law.[7] Rather than focusing on improving their asylum policies, Spanish officials criticized Moroccan officials over their “lack of border control,” calling it an “act of defiance.”[8]

Yet Spain is not the only one. Although Greece has repeatedly denied it, advocates have long criticized Greece for pushing migrants back to Turkey,[9] and their tactics grow increasingly barbaric. Recently, Greece employed high-tech sound cannons to create a wall of noise designed to physically prevent migrants from approaching their borders.[10] Denmark, on the other hand, labeled Damascus as safe and is thus requiring Syrian asylum-seekers who will not voluntarily return to Syria to live in asylum centers.[11]

As EU countries continue to develop creative and inhumane tactics to deter migrants, they ignore the real problem: their migration policies do not benefit all countries impacted by migrant flows. EU border countries like Spain and Greece continue to seek solutions that prioritize their interests and punish countries like Morocco and Turkey when they deem them to be noncompliant. Such a unilateral strategy makes it increasingly difficult for countries to reach agreements in which responsibility for hosting migrants is shared, a necessary feat for ensuring migrants have the right to asylum in the EU.

What’s worse is that the Dublin Regulation incentivizes these practices as it fails to evenly distribute responsibility for hosting asylum seekers among EU states, thereby forcing border states to either bear the responsibility of hosting migrants amidst migration influxes, or implement barriers that keep migrants out, such as the pushbacks and sound cannons mentioned earlier. In this way, the Dublin Regulation maintains Fortress Europe: implementing such barriers becomes the only way to shift responsibility to neighboring states in the EU,[12] even if they violate international and EU law. Not only does this erode the right to asylum, it also likely means that barriers will grow increasingly inhumane as border states become more desperate to control the influx of migrants,[13] a trend that becomes even more worrisome when considering the number of Afghan refugees attempting to enter the EU is likely to rise given the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

Moreover, as states employ increasingly inhumane barriers instead of developing solutions that share the responsibility of hosting migrants among member states, migrants are forced to continue to seek dangerous pathways outside the law, while those who do reach the borders of Forests Europe continue to be left in limbo for years.[14] In this way, the implementation of such barriers is a direct cause of migrant deaths.[15]

It is well beyond time that the EU moves beyond pure condemnation and develop practical solutions that address these migrant deaths and the increasingly inhumane policies implemented by border states. This effort, whether that be reforming the Dublin Regulation or implementing new legislation altogether, needs to be driven by a sense of urgency that prioritizes migrants’ right to asylum, right to dignity, and right to life, among other things.

Without the entire EU’s dedication to improving the asylum system, migrants will continue to die, and the world will continue to watch.

[1] Francesco Messineo, The ‘Left-To-Die Boat’: Whose Responsibility for the Death of 63 Migrants in the Mediterranean?, EJIL Talk (Mar. 31, 2012), https://www.ejiltalk.org/the-left-to-die-boat-whose-responsibility-for-the-death-of-63-migrants-in-the-mediterranean/.

[2] Helena Smith, Shocking Images of Drowned Syrian Boy Show Tragic Plight of Refugees, The Guardian (Sep. 2, 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/02/shocking-image-of-drowned-syrian-boy-shows-tragic-plight-of-refugees.

[3] These are the total deaths from January 1, 2021 to June 19, 2021. Migration Route, Missing Migrants (last visited: June 8, 2021), https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean.

[4] Despite this, the EU continues to refrain from partaking in sea rescues. Fact Check: Is sea rescue a pull factor for refugees?, DW (last visited: June 17, 2018), https://www.dw.com/en/fact-check-is-sea-rescue-a-pull-factor-for-refugees/a-57804247.  

[5] Spain Returns People who Swam from Morocco, Adds Troops to Border, AlJazeera (May 17, 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/17/scores-of-migrants-and-refugees-swim-to-spains-ceuta-enclave. Children and unaccompanied minors were among the thousands of migrants, and one young man drowned while others were treated for various injuries and hypothermia.  Ashifa Kassam, Ceuta Influx Highlights Fragility of EU’s Approach to Migration, The Guardian (May 20, 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/

may/20/ceuta-influx-highlights-fragility-of-eus-approach-to-migration; Renata Brito and Aritz Parra, Spain, Morocco, Square Off After 8,000 Migrants Swim, Paddle Over to Spanish Soil, L.A. Times (May 18, 2021), https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-05-18/spain-morocco-square-off-thousands-migrants-arrive-by-sea.

[6] Ashifa Kassam, Spain Accuses Morocco of ‘Show of Disrespect’ for EU in Migrant Row, The Guardian (May 19, 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/19/spain-accused-of-summary-deportations-as-thousands-sent-back-to-morocco.

[7] Id. Advocates have been criticizing Spain’s pushback policies for years. For more information, see Spain: Halt Summer Pushbacks to Morocco, Human Rights Watch (Aug. 18, 2014), https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/18/spain-halt-summary-pushbacks-morocco.

[8] As Migrants Continue to Reach Ceuta, Spanish Pushback Hardens, AlJazeera (May 19, 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/19/spain-moves-to-head-off-ceuta-migrant-and-refugee-crisis.

[9] Press Release, Jusoor, Greece: Investigate Pushbacks, Violence at Borders (Oct. 6, 2020), https://www.josoor.net/press-reslease/greece-investigate-pushbacks-violence-at-borders.  Such reports have continued as recently as April 2021, which is particularly notable considering that readmissions to Turkey have been halted since 2020. For more information, refer to See e.g., John Psaropoulos, Refugee Pushbacks: Greece Prepares to Indict Whistleblowers (Apr. 14, 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/14/refugee-pushbacks-greece-Prepares-to-indict-whistleblowers. Readmissions were halted due to the onset of COVID-19. Country Report: Turkey, AIDA 43 (2020), https://asylumineurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/AIDA-TR_2020update.pdf.

[10] Advocates have raised concerns that the use of sound cannons violates the right to dignity, a European fundamental right. See, Tasos Kokkinidis, Sound Cannon Deployed by Greece to Deter Migrants Alarm the EU, Greek Report (June 4, 2021), https://greekreporter.com/2021/06/04/sound-canonsdeployed-greece-deter-migrants-alarm-eu/.

[11] Syrian refugees in Denmark have highlighted the negative mental health toll such policies have. Ahmad has described leavening in Denmark has “almost harder – mentally – than war” because “in war, you have the hope that you’ll get out…” Rachael Kennedy & Nadine Abdel-Hamid, ‘Almost Harder than War’: Refugee in Denmark on the Prospect of Being Sent Home to Syria, Euronews (June 14, 2021), https://www.euronews.com/2021/06/14/almost-harder-than-war-refugee-in-denmark-on-the-prospect-of-being-sent-home-to-syria.

[12] Ashley Binetti Armstrong, You Shall Not Pass! How the Dublin System Fueled Fortress Europe, 20 Chicago J. Int’l L. 332, 356 (2020).

[13] Pushbacks, for example, violate the prohibition of collective expulsions outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights, article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and article 32 and 33 of the 1951 Geneva Convention. Push-Backˆ, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (last visited: June 19, 2021) https://www.ecchr.eu/en/glossary/push-back/; Natalie Gruber, Pushbacks are illegal, JUSOOR (Mar. 31, 2021), https://www.josoor.net/post/pushbacks-are-illegal. There are also concerns that the use of sound cannons violates the right to dignity, a European fundamental right. See, Tasos Kokkinidis, Sound Cannon Deployed by Greece to Deter Migrants Alarm the EU, Greek Report (June 4, 2021), https://greekreporter.com/2021/06/04/sound-canonsdeployed-greece-deter-migrants-alarm-eu/.

[14] For example, Syrian migrants in the Eastern Aegean islands who have been ordered to be deported to Turkey are unable to leave the country because the Turkey-Greece border has been closed since March 2020, leaving migrants in a state where they have no right to remain in Greece but are simultaneously unable to leave. Equal Rights Beyond Borders, Consequences of the Eu-Turkey Statement, 32 (2021).

[15] Lorenzo Tondo, Revealed: 2,000 Refugee Deaths Link to Illegal EU Pushbacks, The Guardian (May 5, 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/05/revealed-2000-refugee-deaths-linked-to-eu-pushbacks.

Suggested Citation: Tina Al-khersan, Migrant Deaths in the Mediterranean and the Failure of the European Union, (September 1, 2021), https://reflaw.org/migrant-deaths-in-the-mediterranean-and-the-failure-of-the-european-union.


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