Between Scylla and Charybdis

Migrants’ Dangerous Odyssey Across the Mediterranean

MOAS rescue migrants in the Mediterranean
Between Scylla and Charybdis : Migrants’ Dangerous Odyssey Across the Mediterranean - Valerie Tan


According to the UNHCR, 75,000 people attempted to cross the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2014 with 800 dying before reaching land. Yet people still insist on making the journey. On the other side of the Mediterranean is the European Union, which persecutes some who have survived the journey while providing sanctuary to others. It is high time for European Union member states to work together to find a durable and sustainable solution to the situation in the Mediterranean. This paper briefly discusses the main reasons migrants embark on such a perilous journey and suggests elements of a strategy to address this issue.


On October 3, 2013 a small fishing vessel carrying almost 500 passengers capsized a few hundred meters off the coast of Sicily.[1] Among the dead were two pregnant women and three children while 200 were lost at sea. A year has passed since then, and yet the number of migrants making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean has not abated. According to the UNHCR, 75,000 people attempted to cross the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2014 with 800 dying before reaching land. Between July 1 and September 30, the number swelled to 90,000 with 2,200 deaths.[2] This means that in a two-month span, the risk of dying during a sea crossing doubled compared to the entire first half of 2014, and yet people still insist on making the crossing. These statistics are alarming, and the people behind those numbers are calling for help. The Mediterranean is at its deadliest, becoming a modern-day Charybdis swallowing desperate migrants on an odyssey to perceived safety. However, on the other side of the Mediterranean is the European Union: A Scylla that persecutes some who have survived the journey while providing sanctuary to others. This paper briefly discusses the main reasons migrants embark on such a perilous journey across the Mediterranean and suggests elements of a strategy for a sustainable solution to the crisis which primarily relies on increased European involvement. The European Union is teetering on a delicate balance between humanitarianism and security, with the latter unfortunately taking precedence in political agendas. European Union member states need to work together to find a common migration policy that puts humanitarian aid to the fore, or else thousands of innocent lives will continue to be lost to the sea.

The Mediterranean, a Migrant’s Charybdis

Since the Lampedusa tragedy of 2013, Italy has been the only state to actively take action in assisting migrants at sea.[3] Mare Nostrum — its search and rescue operation — has saved over 100,000 lives in its one year of operation. According to the Italian navy, it is a “military and humanitarian operation” whose goal is primarily to save lives while combating human trafficking.[4] However, despite its valiant efforts, Mare Nostrum falls short of its goals given the vastness of the Mediterranean and the number of people crossing in small boats. In 2013, 60,000 people made the crossing to Europe. By the beginning of October 2014, 165,000 people  crossed the Mediterranean.[5] With these numbers, Italy cannot effectively carry out its rescue mandate. Together with other coastal states like Greece and Malta, it struggles to save as many lives as possible while maintaining secure borders and economic stability.

A primary cause for the swell in migrants crossing the Mediterranean is the continued internal strife and conflict in Northern Africa and the Middle East. From Egypt’s political unrest to Eritrea’s authoritarian crackdown and Syria’s bloody civil war, people are leaving by the thousands. The situation in the Mediterranean is a mixed migration phenomenon.  People are compelled to leave for various reasons, from persecution to lack of economic and social opportunities.  Moreover, sealed land borders and other physical restraints to movement have driven people to the sea. Even migrants who attempt to obtain appropriate documents to migrate are turned away and are left with no safe alternatives.[6] The UNHCR estimates that half of the crossers come from Syria and Eritrea.[7] This shows that the impossible circumstances of war and conflict drive people to desperate measures to survive. Libya, which was a thriving metropolis for migrants all over the region, has since disintegrated into a failed state. After the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, economic prospects in Libya have all but disappeared, and traffickers are reaping the benefits of the country’s chaos. Without proper law enforcement, emboldened traffickers subject passengers to the most inhumane conditions including rape and torture.[8] Frontex — the European Union’s border patrol agency — estimates that one boat earns up to 1 million euros for its owner – regardless of whether its passengers reach EU soil.[9] Moreover, with Mare Nostrum in place, traffickers are now purposely sinking boats to be rescued, adding to the death toll and human suffering. Indeed, traffickers have turned the Mediterranean into Charybdis, and their despicable actions continue to feed it.

Another reason for continued crossing through the Mediterranean is Europe’s proximity and stark contrast of stability compared to that of the sending countries. With instruments such as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Convention of Human Rights and the European Court for Human Rights, the EU sends a clear message that respect for dignity of life is embedded in its laws. This is a dream for migrants whose home countries not only lack the rule of law, but also even basic institutions that can protect them. Human rights may be universal and inalienable, but without a government to ensure those rights, people will increasingly find themselves boarding unseaworthy vessels to find a government that will. It is tragic that people are compelled to risk their lives for the mere chance of obtaining their innate right.

The EU: Six Heads Are Not Better than One

The European Union can no longer afford to ignore the situation in the Mediterranean, and it is high time for member states to work together in finding a durable and sustainable solution. By far the most pressing and immediate response needed is a policy of burden-sharing within the Union. There must be political will to see that the coastal states’ migrant problem is just as much a problem for the inner states. As Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said, “Refugees are in the EU as soon as they arrive in Italy”.[10] There must be more equity within the EU in dealing with the migration crisis. At best, it is economically imperative for the EU to heed the call of the front-line states. Although migrants enter through Italy and other coastal states, they do not remain and instead move north towards Germany and Sweden.[11] At the very least, it is a moral imperative that the EU stops turning a blind eye.

Burden-sharing can start financially, with the EU appropriating funds for the coastal governments to be able to maintain a humane and organized system for accepting refugees. Reception centers in Italy, Malta, Cyprus and Greece are becoming overcrowded, and the increase in arrivals brings a decline in quality of services and treatment available to migrants. Reception centers need to be just that – a place that is receptive of migrants, and not one that serves as a prison or limbo for those who barely survived their last difficult journey. A quota system could also be put in place, whereby EU states accept migrants equitably. Family reunification should be the primary consideration for resettlement, followed by job matching and other economic and social considerations that best fit both the receiving state and migrant.

Given Mare Nostrum’s success in saving lives, the EU should also consider having a well-funded EU-wide Mare Nostrum operation that has a clear mission to first ensure the safety of all human lives at sea and then maintain the security of EU borders.[12] In August, the European Commission announced Triton, a Frontex-led operation meant to complement Mare Nostrum.[13] While Triton gets its feet wet (literally), the search and rescue systems in place must be strengthened. Italy and Malta have the two largest search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Yet, they are often at odds in their definitions of distress calls and disembarkation procedures.[14] Finger-pointing and frustration can be eliminated with support from the rest of the EU. If search and rescue zone responsibilities are clearly marked and adequate funding is in place, cooperation can be more efficient, and more lives can be saved. The cost to pay attention to the refugees may be high, but by now the EU must realize that ignoring them will cost much more.

Institutionally, the EU must introduce reforms to its Dublin Regulation. Signed in 2003, the Regulation states that Asylum applications can only be processed where refugees first step foot on EU soil.[15] This puts undue pressure on EU coastal and periphery states, which become discouraged from processing migrants and continuing their rescue operations because of the strain on their coffers and resources. Unfortunately, the convention seems to primarily protect the territorial integrity of member states based on unfounded fears of migrant inundation. Instead, the convention should have been based on each state’s obligations under the Geneva conventions of 1951. After all, the discussion is about people who need protection and have skills to offer, not parasites. With the Dublin Regulation, the EU created a fortress against a perceived enemy army of migrants, and has unfairly made states like Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta its first line of defense, but without providing much needed reinforcement.

Migrants only choose the perilous crossing on the Mediterranean because they have no other options.[16] With land borders sealed tight, sea crossing is the only available route, and this has been capitalized on by traffickers. The establishment of a safe route for migration would allow the suffering and inhumane treatment of migrants to be mitigated. Moreover, the safe route can make it easier for the EU to filter migrants and properly process their status without any risk to their lives or dignity. A legal safe alternative that maximizes opportunities brought by migrants while minimizing costs to receiving countries is paramount to finding a sustainable solution. Joint border security protocols should be established between EU periphery states and non-EU states on the border. There are ways for border security to be maintained without sacrificing human dignity. Further, safe routes should not just be established for access to the European Union but also to move within it. Though free movement for EU citizens is guaranteed, the Dublin Convention restricts refugees and asylum seekers’ ability to move around EU states for fear of being “Dublined”. Migrants are forcibly returned to their first country of arrival, which in many cases leads to being imprisoned for moving irregularly. This situation is in and of itself a violation of the human right to movement. The EU needs to address this issue and ensure that the same rights and privileges are available to migrants wherever they are in the Union.[17]

Finally, the EU must work with sending countries like Libya, Egypt, Syria and Eritrea to stabilize them and create better living conditions so that would-be migrants would no longer feel compelled to leave. No one can prevent an individual from moving. Pure chance put them in their country of birth, and the choice to move to another country is their inalienable human right. Therefore, the EU must work with sending countries to create conditions where this right to move need not be exercised. Migration is a choice – the fact that conditions exist in this world that compel people to choose to endanger themselves and allow themselves to be treated inhumanely is a dark stain on the world’s moral conscience. Indeed, migrants are constantly placed between Scylla and Charybdis; they face an option of two evils – to stay and risk their lives, or to leave and still risk their lives. No one should have to choose to go through sub-human obstacles just for the smallest chance of living humanely. The EU must act, or else it will find its conscience at the bottom of the Mediterranean together with the lives of those it failed to protect.

Notes & References

  1. BBC News, “Italy boat sinking: hundreds feared dead off Lampedusa”, 3 October 2013,
  2. UNHCR, “Mediterranean crossings more deadly a year after Lampedusa tragedy”, 2 October 2014,
  3. Amnesty International, Lives Adrift: Refugees and migrants in peril in the central Mediterranean Index: EUR 05/006/2014, 30 September 2014,, p. 7
  4. Ibid. p. 23
  5. UNHCR, “Mediterranean crossings more deadly a year after Lampedusa tragedy”
  6. Amnesty International, “Lives Adrift”, p.16
  7. UNHCR, “UNHCR chief Guterres and Angelina Jolie warn of mounting crisis in the Mediterranean”, 15 September 2014
  8. Amnesty International, “Lives Adrift”, p. 15
  9. Frontex, “People Smugglers: the latter day slave merchants”
  10. Der Spiegel, “Europe’s African Refugee Crisis: Is the boat really full?”, 15 April 2014,
  11. Amnesty International, “Lives Adrift” p.54
  12. Ibid., p.30
  13. Ibid., “Lives Adrift”, p. 57
  14. Ibid., p. 27-33
  15. European Commission Website,
  16. Amnesty International, “Lives Adrift”, p.7
  17. Ibid., p. 59
Valerie Tan is a first-year International Development concentrator at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna. She studied International Relations with a focus on the History of War in Boston University for her undergraduate degree. After college, Valerie worked in the US, the Netherlands and the Philippines doing NGO work, anti-terrorism and anti-corruption respectively. She was born and raised in the Philippines.