War, violent persecution, and Islamic State driving Mediterranean crisis

Human Rights Watch carries out 150 interviews with migrants detailing horrors that cause them to flee

File photo, 8 June 2014 of a migrant rescued by the AFM. Photo: John Pisani
File photo, 8 June 2014 of a migrant rescued by the AFM. Photo: John Pisani

Human rights abuses in their home countries are the driving force behind the surge in boat migration in the Mediterranean to reach Europe, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

As EU leaders prepare to meet on 25-26 June to discuss European Commission proposals for a ‘European Migration Agenda’, the 33-page report, “The Mediterranean Migration Crisis: Why People Flee, What the EU Should Do,” documents the human rights abuses driving people to make the dangerous sea crossing.

Based on 150 interviews in May with recently-arrived migrants and asylum seekers in Italy and Greece, and research countries or origin like Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Somalia, the report shows how war and political violence are pushing migrants towards Europe.

“The majority of those crossing the Mediterranean are taking terrible risks because they have to, not because they want to,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

“Saving lives and increasing safe pathways into Europe should be the EU’s priorities, while ensuring that all cooperation with countries of origin and transit countries respects international human rights standards.”

Over 100,000 migrants and asylum seekers have crossed the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015: over 60% come from Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan, or from Eritrea.

They face threats from indiscriminate fighting, insurgent groups such as the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, and ISIS, forced military conscription and attacks on schools.

Mubarek, from Parwan, in northern Afghanistan, left the country with his wife and three young sons in March to escape the Taliban. “Every day the Taliban would take people and children for suicide bombings,” he said. “I was worried about my children, my sons, that they would be forced to become suicide bombers.”


Some migrants who have lived in Libya since before the current hostilities broke out in May 2014, are fleeing insecurity and violence there.

Every year thousands of unaccompanied children make the journey across the Mediterranean without parents or other caregivers. In 2014, over 10,500 children traveled alone to Italy by sea. In Greece, over 1,100 unaccompanied children were registered in 2014.

HRW said the EU should maintain robust search and rescue operations as long as they are necessary. “It should significantly increase the number of people resettled in the EU under UNHCR programmes from the 20,000 proposed by EC. EU countries should endorse and fully carry out the EC’s proposal to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers within the EU to share responsibility for asylum seekers more equitably across the EU.”

UNCHR has asked the international community to resettle at least 130,000 Syrian refugees. But while the EU has pledged to resettle 45,000, Human Rights Watch said it can respond more generously to the Syrian crisis as well as to other protracted refugee crises.

HRW said that while the European Migration Agenda includes some positive steps that if implemented fully, and more generously, could help save lives, most of the agenda involves reinforcing measures to limit arrivals to the EU.

“EU leaders should support farther-reaching proposals to increase safe and legal channels into the EU. These measures should include significantly expanding resettlement for refugees identified by the UNHCR, facilitated family reunification to enable people already in the EU to bring family members there, and the increased use of humanitarian visas to enable people in need of international protection to travel lawfully to the EU to apply for asylum,” HRW said.

It also said the EU should ensure that cooperation with sending and transit countries does not effectively trap people in abusive situations. “The EU should use its influence and resources more effectively to address the major drivers of migration, including systematic human rights violations, poverty, inequitable development, weak governance, and violent conflict and lawlessness.

“There are no easy solutions to the terrible abuse and hardship that force people to leave their countries or the cruelty they face on the journeys,” Sunderland said. “This is a difficult challenge for the EU but one where human rights must take centre-stage.”

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