- Migration across the Mediterranean: context in brief
There is a long history of migration via the Mediterranean. Human mobility in all directions across the Mediterranean has occurred for thousands of years. More recently, since at least the mid-1990s, thousands of people each year have crossed the Mediterranean by boat from the northern coasts of Africa and Turkey to seek asylum or to migrate to Europe if they do not have the documentation required by the countries of destination. It should be noted that the Mediterranean Sea is where irregular migration to Europe is most visible. However, people also use other irregular migration routes to reach Europe, including the sea crossings from Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands, from Comoros to French Mayotte, and the land route across the Turkey-Greece border and to/through the Balkans. The information here focuses on mixed migration dynamics of the three main routes to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. However, it should be noted that these routes are not always used as defined and can overlap. Journalists and civil society organizations have documented the risks associated with these migration routes since the early 1990s. Since 2014, Missing Migrants Project has recorded the deaths of over 20,000 deaths and disappearances in the Mediterranean Sea.
 For example, UNITED for Intercultural Action and the Deaths at the Border Database
The Central Mediterranean route is the overseas crossing from North Africa to Italy and, to a lesser degree, Malta. Those migrating on this route generally aim to reach Italian shores but leave from a variety of North African countries bordering the Mediterranean. Though in past years most migrants have departed from Libya, which is a destination for migrants as well as a transit country, there is also a proportionally small but growing number of departures from Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria. Tunisia in particular has seen an increase in departures, with Tunisian nationals comprising more than 60 percent of Central Mediterranean crossings in 2020 according to IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix.
Between 1997 and 2010, an average of about 23,000 migrants arrived in Italy each year across the Mediterranean, though the number of arrivals recorded dropped to less than 10,000 between 2009 and 2010. In 2011, the number of migrants arriving in Europe via the Central Mediterranean route rose dramatically: 62,692 sea arrivals were recorded in Italy, a 13-fold increase over the 4,406 recorded in 2010. Migrant arrivals in Italy remained high in the years following 2011 but dropped in mid-2017. However, it is unclear if this is a true reduction in people arriving or due to an increased number of interceptions of migrants at sea by North African authorities and/or more deaths at sea. The former is particularly the case, as the number of people being returned to North African shores has increased in recent years. Interceptions by the Tunisian and Libyan coast guards accounted for 8 percent of all search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean in 2016, but by 2018, 49 percent of the total number people recorded attempting to cross were brought back to Tunisia or Libya. This shift can be attributed to several factors, including the decreased maritime patrol area of Italian authorities and the shift of EU/Frontex assets from maritime vessels to drones incapable of conducting rescue at sea.
The Western Mediterranean has been a crossing point between North Africa and Spain for thousands of years. It encompasses several sub-routes, including the maritime journeys from Morocco and the western coast of Algeria across the Strait of Gibraltar and the Alborán Sea as well as the land route into Ceuta and Melilla, two autonomous Spanish cities located in North Africa. Irregular migration to Spain has been a common occurrence since Spain introduced visa requirements for many North African countries in 1991 as part of the Schengen process. Migrants travelling on this route mostly depart from Morocco – the distance between Spain and Morocco is just 14.4 km at its closest point – though since the mid-2010s there is also a small but growing number of boat departures to mainland Spain from the western coast of Algeria. Moroccans have also been the most common nationality to reach Spain via the Western Mediterranean, most of whom are young men.
The Eastern Mediterranean route involves maritime migration from Turkey to Greece and, to a lesser degree, Cyprus and Bulgaria. It was the main maritime route used for irregular entry to Europe in 2015, when nearly one million migrants attempted to cross the Mediterranean into Europe through this route (IOM, 2021a; 2021b). The number of people using this maritime route dropped sharply after the implementation of the European Union–Turkey agreement in late March 2016 and since then have remained far fewer than seen in 2015. The route is largely used by people from the Middle East and South Asia fleeing conflict and instability, notably Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans.
- Overview of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean
Since at least 2014, when the Missing Migrants Project began, the Mediterranean Sea has become a site of escalating numbers of migrant fatalities. The migratory journeys prior to these Mediterranean crossings are also highly risky, as they often involve crossing remote terrains such as the Sahara Desert and residing, at least temporarily, in countries such as Libya where conditions for migrants are often dangerous.
The Central Mediterranean is the deadliest known migration route in the world, with more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances recorded by MMP since 2014. This is due both to the length of the overseas journey, which can take days, as well as increasingly dangerous smuggling patterns, gaps in search-and-rescue capacity and restrictions on the life-saving work of NGOs. Migrants often cross the Central Mediterranean in unseaworthy, overloaded inflatable boats. Multiple boats may also be launched at the same time, which complicates search and rescue efforts significantly.
The Central Mediterranean is also the route where the most disappearances have occurred, though it is likely that many more deaths remain unrecorded. MMP data since 2014 suggests that the remains of more than 12,000 people have been lost at sea on this route. There is also strong evidence that many shipwrecks are “invisible” – boats in distress disappear with no survivors – that therefore go unrecorded. For example, MMP has recorded hundreds of human remains found on Libyan shores that are not linked to any known shipwreck.
More than 2,000 migrant deaths and disappearances have been recorded on the Western Mediterranean since 2014, with the vast majority involving shipwrecks on the overseas route to the Spanish mainland. However, the land crossings to the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta are also hazardous, with several dozen deaths recorded by MMP attributable to violence, sickness and lack of access to health care. In several cases, accidental and violent deaths have occurred at the border fences of these Spanish enclaves linked to attempted crossings.
Nearly 1,700 deaths and disappearances have been recorded on the Eastern Mediterranean since 2014, with nearly half of these (803) recorded in 2015 alone. Compared to the other Mediterranean routes, a higher proportion of people’s remains are recovered and brought ashore, with nearly 1,200 documented since 2014. This means that the identities and profiles of those who die are better known: the deaths of nearly 500 children have been recorded on the Eastern Mediterranean route since 2014, many of whom were under age 5. The deaths of 266 women and 273 men have also been documented on this route, many of whom were from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
- Data collection and challenges
In addition to the challenges inherent to collecting data on missing migrants, ensuring full coverage and completeness of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean faces unique obstacles. The nature of any overseas crossing means that it is highly likely that migrants may disappear without a trace, especially in cases where people are lost at sea or shipwrecks occur with no survivors. This is exemplified by the hundreds of remains recovered on the shores of Libya which are not linked to any known shipwreck, as well as the many reports of shipwrecks with no survivors that are challenging to verify. This means that not only is the documented number of deaths and disappearances on these migration routes likely an undercount, but also that for the vast majority of recorded cases little to no information on the individuals who die is available.
Data on attempted crossings of the Mediterranean Sea 2016-2019 can be downloaded here, including data on arrivals in Europe, interceptions by North African and Turkish Coast Guards, and migrant deaths and disappearances.
Migrant deaths and disappearances in the Mediterranean
Black, J. and I. Urquijo Sanchez (2017) “Europe and the Mediterranean” in Fatal Journeys 3 part 2: Improving Data on Missing Migrants. IOM, Geneva.
Dearden, K., M. Sánchez Dionis, J. Black and F. Laczko (2020) Calculating “Death Rates” in the Context of Migration Journeys: Focus on the Central Mediterranean. IOM, Geneva.
Robins, S. (2019) Analysis of Best Practices in the Identification of Missing Migrants: Implications for the Central Mediterranean. IOM, Geneva.
Data on migration in the Mediterranean more broadly
Migration Data Portal: Europe
Flow Monitoring Europe