African migrants risk all in the Mediterranean Sea

Over the past 20 years, it is estimated that somewhere in the region of 25,000 migrants and refugees have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach the shores of Europe.

In 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 200,000 people, including 15,000 unaccompanied children, made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. The majority arrived from ports in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. This was a dramatic increase from the 60,000 that were estimated to have arrived in Italy in 2013.

In November 2013, one month after a tragedy in which 366 migrants died when just one boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, Italian authorities set up the lifesaving Mare Nostrum operation. It lasted exactly one year before being disbanded because of EU and Italian government pressure. Now a combination of Italian coast guard and EU Frontex boats patrol the waters and continue to pluck migrants from the sea.

Many of these migrants are shipped from the northern Libyan ports of Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata and ferried over by highly organized smuggling operations whose communication tentacles spread deep into the African continent and beyond into Syria, Gaza and other parts of the Middle East.

In these winter months the number of voyages lessens, as many migrants refuse to pay for the journey during the rough weather despite ever-growing unrest in Libya. In September 2014, Getty Images Reportage photographer Giles Clarke spent a month in the region traveling from Lampedusa to Malta, Sicily, and through mainland Italy up to Vienna, 1,000 miles to the north. Over the month, he met some people who have escaped war-torn countries and talked to a few of those closely involved with providing aid and much-needed humanitarian help.

According to Giovanna Di Benedetto, the media officer for Save the Children in Sicily, more than 140,000 people were rescued and brought to the shores of Sicily and southern Italy in 2014. About 22,700 were minors, and half of those traveled alone. Many escaped from Eritrea and Somalia and spent months crossing the Sahara in very dangerous conditions.

During what was the deadliest year on Mediterranean migration records, around 4,800 people died or went missing at sea in 2014.

Many of the 12,000 or so per month who arrived in Sicily were processed in the ports of Syracuse and Augusta. The migrants arrive with nothing but the clothes they are wearing — the smuggling gangs don’t permit them to bring more. Each passenger pays upwards of $700 for a place on the overloaded boats. Paperwork or IDs are rarely found on the incoming migrants.

Current estimates by UNHCR have put the number of migrants waiting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya as high as 800,000. How many of these are minors is impossible to tell. Now that the Mare Nostrum operation has ended and rescue funds are diminishing, it will be even more difficult for those seeking to escape the horrors of wars and violence.

Some people, however, will continue to help the seemingly endless flow of migrants who leave the shores of Libya daily, such as the American-Italian couple Chris and Regina Catrambone and their Malta-based rescue operation, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. This couple self-funded the purchase of a 40-meter former coaster and employed a crew of 18 during the summer of 2014. They rescued more than 3,000 people found drifting in cramped boats in the waters off Malta and Libya.

“We do not see the migration and trafficking ending anytime soon. It is a multibillion-dollar business that is only getting bigger, and we cannot sit by and watch thousands drown every year,” said Chris Catrambone.

Now, as the spring of 2015 approaches and the North African smuggling operations ramp up again, the already overstretched coast guard and rescue services await an impending influx that may well exceed the numbers that arrived in 2014.

(Text and Photography by Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage)

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