Eastern Mediterranean: dramatic increase in migrant flows

By Tara Brian

        While media coverage has tended to focus on the Central Mediterranean – routes from Northern Africa to Italy and Malta – in fact, it is the Eastern Mediterranean that has seen a dramatic increase in migrant flows this year. Maritime arrivals to Greece in just the first five months of 2015 have already eclipsed the total number for 2014 (roughly 48,000 in 2015 compared with 34,400 in 2014). In 2014, maritime arrivals to Greece were just about 20% the size of arrivals to Italy (170,100). This year, however, arrivals to Greece are only about 10,000 shy of the numbers being received in Italy. While flows to Greece have expanded significantly in the past year, Italy has seen only a 15% increase in arrivals compared to this time last year.


Syrians are by far the largest group arriving in Greece through the Aegean Sea. Between January and the end of April this year, over 12,000 were reported by the Hellenic Ministry of Interior and Administrative Reconstruction; at least 4,000 more were detected on land borders by the end of April this year. Afghans make up the second largest group of arrivals, although Syrians still more than double them. Together, Syrians and Afghans made up about 80% of arrivals in the first 4 months of the year, and comprised 86% of maritime arrivals in 2014. Other nationalities are far less significant, and include Pakistanis, Somalis, and Iraqis in 2015. Of note, there has been a surge in arrivals from Pakistan.

In the Central Mediterranean, Eritreans are the dominant nationality, with the share of Syrians dropping in 2015. In 2014, Syrians and Eritreans made up 45% of irregular maritime arrivals to Italy, with Syrians predominating. West African countries featured in the top five countries of origin, although in far lower numbers. In 2014, arrivals of Malians, Nigerians and Gambians together still made up less than half the number of Syrian and Eritrean arrivals. In fact, among the top seven countries of origin to Italy in 2014, 76% were from key refugee-producing countries (Syria, Eritrea, Occupied Palestinian Territories and Somalia). In 2015, there has been a large decreased in numbers of Syrians arriving in Italy.  Between January and end May of this year, Syrians were only the fourth top country of origin, and numbers were just one third the number of Eritrean arrivals (3,185 versus 10,985). Eritreans are by far the largest share of arrivals – comprising 23% of all arrivals so far this year. While West African countries feature higher on the list of arrivals, this is more a reflection of the decrease in Syrians than it is of an increase in West Africans.


Perhaps some of the reason for the greater media focus on the Central Mediterranean is the much higher rate of death on this route than in the Eastern Mediterranean. So far this year, 97% of deaths in the Mediterranean have occurred in the Central Mediterranean, with about 3 deaths per every 100 migrants attempting the crossing. In contrast, the Eastern Mediterranean has seen just about 31 deaths, or 0.065 deaths per 100 travellers. April was the most deadly month this year, with over 1,200 dying during their journeys, almost all in the Central Mediterranean. This is about 7 deaths per every 100 attempting the crossing in the Central Mediterranean. In total, deaths in the Mediterranean are 4 times higher than they were at this point last year. However, in May and so far in June, numbers of deaths have fallen, with just 95 in May 2015 as compared with about 330 in May 2014. See table 1.


Irregular maritime arrivals to Malta are almost non-existent – just under 100 this year – with the vast majority of those rescued in the Central Mediterranean disembarking in Italy. Numbers arriving through the Western Mediterranean route to Spain are also low, with just over 1,000 so far this year.


Table 1. Deaths by month, 2014 and 2015

Deaths in June are until 11th June, in 2014 and 2015.