By Hagen Kopp

157.314 sea arrivals to Italy in 2023! An increase of about 50.000 people compared to 2022. According to UNHCR statistics, only in 2014 and 2016 were more landings registered on this central Mediterranean route. And that in a period when an extreme right-wing government promised its voters to “stop the boats” entirely.

The year of 2023 was remarkable not only in this respect. With more than 48.000 sea arrivals in Greece, the numbers quadrupled along the Aegean route compared to 2022. In Spain, on the western Mediterranean and Atlantic routes, more than 57.000 people reached European shores, close to the record numbers of 2018.

In total, in 2023 more than 270.000 people on the move were able to overcome the Mediterranean borders, a huge increase in comparison to arrival figures from the last six years. The strength of the flight and migration movements clearly defy the aggravations of the European border regime. This assertiveness, the autonomies of migration, require first of all acknowledgement and respect. On the other hand, thousands of humans lost their lives during this daily struggle against EU borders. According to the UNHCR, 3.760 people died or went missing along the Mediterranean routes in 2023. In light of this horrendous figure, several institutions and organizations have referred to the last year as one of the deadliest. Nevertheless, it is also important to consider the mortality rate in reference to arrival numbers.

With regard to the 270.000 arrivals, every 72nd person died at sea in 2023, while in 2022, every 53rd person died, and in 2021, every 38th person perished. In the central Mediterranean Sea, the figures are even starker: every 82nd person died in 2023, while all the eight years before, the death rate was much higher. One main aspect in this development might be the breakthrough on the Tunisian route in the summer months of 2023 and what we called a “small summer of migration.” We experienced the same during the “long summer of migration” in 2015, when the mass arrivals in Greece led to the lowest mortality rate in recent history of border crossings, with every 273rd person dying at sea. Let’s be clear: a single death is already too much and is unbearable. As we wrote in our last issue of Echoes, for each loss: “We won’t forget, we won’t forgive!”

It might appear cold to calculate and compare death rates, but we all know that as long as the Schengen visa regime exists, people on the move will die. Many of our organizations demand freedom of movement and safe passages and, in practice, we try our utmost to mitigate the death rate. Of course, this declining death rate is only a small comfort and is nothing to celebrate, but the existence and intensified cooperation within the civil fleet in the central Mediterranean seems to have made a concrete difference. The importance of the civil fleet is not only represented in overall rescue figures and rescue activities by the NGOs: the “watchdog effects” from land (by phone) and from the air (by planes) are also key, as they pressure the various coastguards through extensive documentation and scandalization practices, often forcing them to rescue and thereby lead to a decrease in the number of non-assistance- and pushback cases. 

Of course, the estimated number of unreported cases of death at sea remains unclear. On the Tunisian route to Lampedusa, on which tens of thousands of people moved last summer, the boats usually have no satellite phones. Dark figures of death might be higher than registered in official UNHCR figures. And this concerns even more the Atlantic routes to the Canary Islands, the longest and most dangerous sea crossing from Africa to Europe. Caminando Fronteras recently reported an incredible number of 6.008 victims in 2023.

There remain many reasons to continue fighting against state border crimes and against the violence and death on sea and on land, as well as the racist agitation all over Europe in 2024. We will not give up struggling in solidarity with refugees and migrants and – in order to support people on the move to overcome or to undermine the European border regime – we will continue to build and extend infrastructures for freedom of movement!