The Mediterranean refugee crisis explained
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The Mediterranean refugee crisis explained

Fairfax Media foreign correspondent Ruth Pollard and photographer Kate Geraghty report from aboard the MY Phoenix, where they witnessed the lifesaving rescue of refugees in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya by Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station.

Here they answer some of the questions arising from the unfolding Mediterranean refugee crisis.

How bad is the situation?

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In the first six months of this year, 137,000 refugees and migrants crossed the central Mediterranean Sea route from Libya to Italy, travelling in appalling conditions in unseaworthy wooden boats and rubber dinghies.

The MY Phoenix rescue boat operated by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station with help from Medecins Sans Frontieres docks in Malta before sailing to the search and rescue zone in the Mediterranean.

The MY Phoenix rescue boat operated by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station with help from Medecins Sans Frontieres docks in Malta before sailing to the search and rescue zone in the Mediterranean.Credit:Kate Geraghty

That number has now topped 150,000 as the summer months in the northern hemisphere – June, July and August – are the safest for those making the treacherous journey.

The season has not yet ended and already the number of refugees making the Mediterranean crossing is an extraordinary 83 per cent higher than last year.

More than 157,000 refugees – mostly Syrians – have made the journey from the Turkish coast to a handful of small Greek Islands, the majority of them landing on Lesbos, Kos and Chios.

How many died trying to make the journey?

A load of lifejackets are brought to Coal wharf in Malta, to be loaded onto the MY Phoenix.

A load of lifejackets are brought to Coal wharf in Malta, to be loaded onto the MY Phoenix.Credit:Kate Geraghty

More than 2000 people have died this year, most of them attempting to make the central Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy. In April, 800 people died in the largest refugee boat wreck on record, forcing the European Union to consider establishing a more effective response to this mass movement of desperate people fleeing war and government repression.

On Wednesday, more than 50 people died in the hull of yet another boat trying to reach Europe.

A drone sits on the upper deck of the MY Phoenix as it prepares to rescue refugees attempting to cross from Libya to Europe.

A drone sits on the upper deck of the MY Phoenix as it prepares to rescue refugees attempting to cross from Libya to Europe.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Which countries are people fleeing?

Not surprisingly, Syrians are the largest single group of refugees trying to get to Europe, accounting for 34 per cent of all arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Eritreans accounted for 12 per cent of maritime arrivals and Afghans made up 11 per cent. Citizens of Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Iraq also made up a significant number of those trying to find a safe place to call home.

How are European governments responding to the crisis?

The issue of maritime rescues in the Mediterranean has been a fraught one. In October 2013, a boat carrying hundreds of refugees from Libya to Italy sank near the island of Lampedusa, killing 368 people.

Italy responded by launching a search and rescue operation called Mare Nostrum – it saved thousands of lives but attracted criticism from some countries that described the lifesaving mission as a "pull factor". By December 2014 Italy had abandoned Mare Nostrum.

Did this stop the refugees coming?

No – refugees continued to try to make the Mediterranean crossing in increasing numbers, reflecting the growing instability in Libya, enduring oppression in Eritrea and across Africa and the horrifying, deadly civil war in Syria.

Add to that, the rising pressure of an ever-expanding number of Syrian refugees moving into neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, left many people feeling they had no choice but to keep moving towards the safety of Europe.

What happened without the sea rescue missions?

During the first four months of 2015, the numbers of those dying at sea reached new heights. By the end of March 479 refugees had drowned or were missing and in April, an unprecedented 1308 people drowned or went missing at sea, compared to 42 the year before.

This horrifying number of deaths led European leaders to agree to increase their operations, including the participation of naval vessels from several EU states.

At the same time, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Migrant Offshore Aid Station announced a joint search, rescue and medical aid operation in the central Mediterranean between Africa and Europe from May to October.

Why are so many people on the move?

By the end of 2014, 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes, driven out by persecution and war, the highest number ever recorded. European Union countries host a relatively small share of those refugees. In contrast, Turkey is host to the world's largest number of refugees (1.59 million), followed by Pakistan (1.51 million), Lebanon (1.15 million), Iran (982,000), Ethiopia (659,500) and Jordan (654,100).

But it is Lebanon that hosts by far the largest number of refugees by population, with 232 refugees per 1000 inhabitants.

Syria is the source of the largest number of refugees in the world: more than 4 million people have been forced to flee a war that is now in its fifth year, with a death toll of at least 200,000 and rising. Of those refugees, at least 1.6 million are children.

Sources: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Organisation for Migration, Medecins Sans Frontieres

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Middle East Correspondent Ruth Pollard has reported on the Arab revolutions, the battle against the Islamic State, tensions in the West Bank and Egypt's power struggle. Her job has taken her to Libya, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia and beyond and in 2014 she won a Walkley Award for her coverage of the war in Gaza.

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