By Altaf Moti
Europe is often seen as a land of opportunity, freedom and prosperity by many people from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They dream of reaching Europe to escape poverty, war, persecution or violence in their countries of origin. They hope to find a better life, education or employment in Europe. They aspire to fulfil their potential and achieve their goals in Europe.
But reaching Europe is not easy. It is a perilous gamble that involves risking their lives, dignity, and rights. It is a desperate choice between “Europe or death”.
To reach Europe, these people have to cross the Mediterranean Sea, which is the most dangerous migration route in the world. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 50,000 migrants have died worldwide since 2014 while trying to reach another country. More than half of these deaths occurred on routes to and within Europe, with the Mediterranean routes claiming at least 25,104 lives.
These people include men, women, and children of different ages, backgrounds, and reasons for migration. They all have to board overcrowded and unsafe boats, often paying smugglers thousands of dollars for a chance to cross the sea. They have to endure harsh weather conditions, hunger, thirst, and sickness. They have to face the hostility and violence of coastguards, pirates, or militias. They have to witness the death or disappearance of their fellow travellers. And they have to pray that they will not sink or drown.
Many of these people choose the routes of Turkey and Libya to reach Europe. These countries are located close to the European continent, and offer shorter and cheaper sea crossings than other routes. However, these crossings are also very dangerous and unpredictable.
Many migrants face abuse, exploitation,or detention by the authorities, militias, or smugglers in these countries.They have limited access to protection, rights, or services.Therefore, they decide to leave these countries or seek asylum for a better life in Europe. Turkey and Libya do not offer legal pathways for migrants to enter or stay in their territories or to move on to other destinations.
Many migrants do not have valid visas, work permits or identity documents. They are considered as irregular or illegal migrants. They do not have access to legal assistance or humanitarian protection in case of abuse, exploitation or violation of their human rights. Therefore, many migrants resort to smugglers or forged documents to cross the borders or the sea towards Europe. But Turkey and Libya are not the only routes that migrants use to reach Europe. There are other routes too that they use to reach Europe. Some of the other routes are:
The Western Mediterranean and Atlantic route
This route leads from Morocco and other northwestern African countries to Spain, either through the Strait of Gibraltar or the Canary Islands. This route has seen an increase in arrivals in recent years especially to the Canaries where more than 23,000 migrants arrived by sea in 2020. Most of the migrants using this route are from Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, Mali, and Guinea.
The Eastern Mediterranean route
This route leads from Turkey to Greece, either by land or by sea. This route saw the largest number of arrivals in 2015 when 885,000 people — most of them Syrian refugees escaping their country’s civil war — used it to reach Europe. Today, it is much less frequented. Since the beginning of 2021, just over 15,000 have arrived using this route most of whom are Syrian nationals. The decrease in arrivals along this route is partly due to the controversial EU-Turkey deal, which aimed to stop irregular migration flows from Turkey to Greece in exchange for financial aid and other benefits.
The Western Balkan route
This route leads from Turkey or Greece to North Macedonia or Serbia, then to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and finally Italy or Austria. This route is mainly used by migrants who have entered Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean route and want to move on to other destinations. However, this route is also very difficult and dangerous, as migrants face harsh weather conditions, mountainous terrain, and violent pushbacks from the Croatian police. Since January 2021, more than 6,000 migrants have been pushed back from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But reaching Europe does not guarantee a happy ending for these people. Many of them face discrimination, rejection and exclusion from the European authorities and societies. They struggle to find legal status, protection or integration in their new countries. They face difficulties in accessing education, health care or employment opportunities. They suffer from loneliness, isolation and trauma from their journey. And they live in fear of being deported or detained at any moment.
One of the most tragic incidents that illustrates the plight of these people happened on June 18, 2023, when an overcrowded fishing boat carrying migrants sank off the coast of Greece. The Greek coastguard rescued 121 survivors but many others remain missing. The boat was reportedly carrying more than 600 and are feared dead. Among the victims were around 350 Pakistanis who had left their country in search of a better future.
This is one of the deadliest incidents in the central Mediterranean Sea which has claimed thousands of lives in recent years. The IOM has called for urgent action to prevent further loss of life and to address the root causes of irregular migration. The IOM has also urged the European Union and its member states to increase legal pathways for migrants and refugees and to ensure their protection and integration.
Why do these people take such a risky gamble with their lives? What drives them to choose between “Europe or death”? The answer is complex and varied, depending on each individual’s circumstances and aspirations. Some are fleeing from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Myanmar, where they face violence, persecution and displacement. Some are escaping from poverty-stricken countries like The Gambia, Senegal and Nigeria where they have no access to education, health care or employment opportunities. Some are seeking reunification with their relatives or friends who have already made it to Europe. And some are simply looking for adventure, freedom and a chance to fulfil their dreams.
Whatever their reasons, these people share a common determination and resilience that defies the odds and challenges they face. They are willing to endure hardship, suffering and loss for a chance to reach their destination. They are not deterred by the risks they are taking nor by the failures they have experienced. Many of them have attempted to cross several times before, only to be returned to Turkey or Libya where they face further danger and despair. But they do not give up. They save up money again, find another smuggler board another boat.
They say: “Europe or death”. But is Europe really the promised land they hope for? What awaits them once they arrive on its shores? The reality is often far from their expectations. Europe is facing its own challenges and crises in dealing with migration issues. Europe is divided and conflicted over its migration policies and practices. Europe is struggling to balance its humanitarian obligations and security interests. Europe is grappling with its own social and economic problems and pressures.
Europe is not a paradise for these people. Europe is a complex and diverse continent that has its own opportunities and challenges, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. Europe is not a monolithic entity that can be easily defined or understood. Europe is a dynamic and evolving project that is constantly changing and adapting. Europe is not a final destination for these people. Europe is a new beginning, a new challenge, a new opportunity.
These people deserve our compassion and respect. They are not criminals or invaders. They are human beings with hopes and dreams just like us. They have shown courage and perseverance in pursuing their goals despite the obstacles and dangers they have faced. They have sacrificed everything for a chance to live a better life.
They need our support and solidarity, not our indifference and hostility. They need our help and cooperation, not our barriers and restrictions. They need our recognition and acceptance, not our rejection and exclusion. They need us to see them as who they are: people who want to reach Europe.