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The Mediterranean Sea: Europe’s Unidentified Grave


The European immigrant crisis has been at the forefront of media coverage and political discussions since the early 2000s. Its peak in 2015 saw the largest number of displaced men, women and children seeking asylum in Europe since the end of the Second World War. In 2015, the UNHCR reported that 911,000 migrants and refugees arrived on European shores, and a devastating number of 3,550 those lost their lives. 

Harrowing images such as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a sandy beach created a wave of emotional distress and a moral outcry from the public to address the issues faced by those escaping war ridden countries. However, 10 years into Syria’s civil war and 6 years on from that image, the migrant crisis continues to be one of the largest humanitarian issues in today’s society. 

A recent video, made in November 2020, was released earlier this year by the media company Vice, titled ‘Europe’s Forgotten Graveyard’. The documentary followed the Open Arms crew during a trip into the Mediterranean where they were the only rescue vessel operating. In 2019 the European Union suspended naval ships and patrols from rescuing migrant boats in the Mediterranean, despite other legal obligations, meaning that NGOs had to fill the gap to save the hundreds and thousands of migrants travelling from Africa to Europe every week.  

The story of Aylan Kurdi is often referred to as an ‘identified individual victim’. His image evoked emotion and catalysed short-term donations and pressure for social action. Often statistics such as a record number of migrant deaths, 1,500, solely in April 2015, have little impact on motivating long-term change. Moreover, the statistics of those lost are likely to be inaccurate or incomplete. Marc Reig, Captain of Open Arms Mission 78 states that, ‘A dead person at sea is only dead when someone can report it’. The Vice documentary focuses on a particular incident where a backpack with personal belongings and a wooden boat were found in an eerily calm sea, one of the crew asked, ‘where are these people, have they been rescued? Or have they drowned in this mass grave that is the Mediterranean Sea?’ Deaths at sea, particularly in the conditions for migrants, are often never accounted for. The exact cost of life will always remain unknown yet that doesn’t diminish the issue because it has limited data. 

The nature of migration at sea adds another dimension to an already difficult process for the millions of asylum seekers, with the unforgiving and deceptive nature of the sea inhibiting the rest of the world from being able to fully comprehend the scale, difficulties and tragedy migrants endure. Whilst the Mediterranean offers a geographic hub between Europe, Africa and Asia its possibility for opportunity is met with a very daunting risk for those trying to navigate it.

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