Things to know about Europe’s migrant crisis at land and sea

Story highlights

NEW: 2,748 migrants die so far this year in Mediterranean, or 73% of those worldwide

European external borders are considered the world's deadliest for migrants

22,400 migrants died trying to reach those borders between 1996 and 2014

CNN  — 

For all the presidential candidates’ uproar over the U.S.-Mexico border, the world’s biggest migrant crisis actually lies with the European Union, reeling from mass deaths on land and sea.

In the span of just a week in August, 71 refugees were found dead in a truck in Austria, and scores of other migrants died off Europe’s shores yet again.

Indeed, the Mediterranean Sea is called the world’s deadliest border because thousands of desperate migrants and refugees drown on unseaworthy boats trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Mideast.

On land, 60 men, eight women, and three children were found dead in the abandoned truck on an Austria highway this week, and the victims are most likely Syrian refugees, authorities said.

Here are four things to know about the humanity migrating to Europe’s doorstep despite deadly peril. Arrests were announced in the Austrian deaths; Italian authorities arrested 10 people in the 52 deaths of migrants and refugees found aboard a boat off Libya.

Why are so many migrating?

As of August, more than 300,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean, exceeding the number in all of 2014, which was 219,000, a United Nations spokeswoman said.

However, another group estimated that 432,761 migrants and refugees have reached Europe by sea this year as of early September, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The reasons for the mass movement are as varied as the nationalities of the people involved.

In broad terms, migrants and refugees are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

Eritreans and Syrians made up half the migrant traffic to Europe last year, according to Arezo Malakooti, director of migration research at Altai Consulting.

In their case, Eritreans are fleeing “one of the poorest countries in the world and a closed and highly securitized state under an authoritarian government,” according to a report by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat in Nairobi last year.

In other words, they are running from a life of repression and abject poverty.

In the Mideast, more than 4 million Syrians have fled four years of civil war, becoming the worst refugee crisis seen in 25 years by the United Nations.

There’s also a pull factor: Migrants see Libya as an open door to the Mediterranean because of the country’s deteriorating security, so they use its coast as a stepping stone to Europe, experts say.

Just how deadly is it?

The Mediterranean passage accounted for 65% of all migrant deaths last year, the International Organization for Migration said.

That equates to 3,279 deaths.

This year, a total of 2,748 migrants have died in the Mediterranean as of early September, accounting for 73% of all migrant deaths worldwide, the IOM said.

Even over a yearslong view, the European external borders remain the biggest deathtrap for migrants and refugees, with 22,400 deaths between 1996 and 2014, the organization said.

The next deadliest?

The U.S.-Mexico border with 6,029 deaths between 1998 and 2013, the group said, citing U.S. Border Patrol statistics.

What’s being done about this?

This may sound familiar to those exasperated by how the U.S. Congress is gridlocked over immigration reform and the U.S.-Mexico border: A Europe-wide solution moves at a painfully slow pace.

“There is no simple, nor single, answer to the challenges posed by migration. And nor can any member state effectively address migration alone. It is clear that we need a new, more European approach,” European Commission officials said on August 6.

Member states don’t appear to be in a hurry.

“Migration is not a popular or pretty topic. It is easy to cry in front of your TV set when witnessing these tragedies. It is harder to stand up and take responsibility. What we need now is the collective courage to follow through with concrete action on words that will otherwise ring empty,” the commission officials said.

Portugal, the Netherlands and Finland support search and rescue operations at sea.

But Italy reduced its rescue missions after the rest of Europe wouldn’t help shoulder the onus of the crisis: Because of its proximity to Libya, Italy feels it has done more than its fair share of picking up, sheltering and feeding migrants.

Britain isn’t supporting the naval Operation Triton held under the auspices of the European Union’s Frontex, contending the rescue fleets are “an unintended ‘pull factor’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”

The European Commission has scheduled a November summit with key African countries to “tackle this challenge from all angles.”

What’s the difference between migrant and refugee?

The distinction is crucial for European countries receiving new arrivals.


Refugees, as defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention, are entitled to basic rights under international law, including the right not to be immediately deported and sent back into harm’s way.

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country because of armed conflict or persecution. Syrians are a prime example.

Migrants, however, are processed under the receiving country’s immigration laws. So, ultimately, these terms have major implications for those seeking asylum and the countries being asked to grant it.

A migrant is someone who chooses to resettle to another country in search of a better life.

So, for example, those fleeing poverty in Nigeria, looking for work in Europe, would not have refugee status and would be considered migrants.

But, technically, refugees are also migrants.

So, what term should we use?

The United Nations notes that both groups are present in Europe and at its shores. It’s safe to call all of them migrants because each is migrating, but many of them are also refugees.

CNN’s Richard Griffiths contributed to this report.