Treacherous Waters: Refugees Risk Their Lives to Reach Europe

Tatyana Krimus – Before they got on the small rubber dinghy, Madrini Yusra and her sister were warned about the possibility of dying before making it to Europe.[1] They were told to swim for their lives, leaving others behind, if the boat began to sink.[2] Thirty minutes into their trip, the boat’s engine failed and the girls, who happened to be competitive swimmers in their home country of Syria, were forced to jump into cold waters.[3] They pulled the boat along for three hours before washing up on Greek Island shores.[4] That day, Madrini, her sister and another refugee saved nineteen passengers.[5]

Madrini’s story of survival is remarkable not only because of her bravery, but also because so many others do not make it. Every year, thousands of desperate refugees get into small, overcrowded, rubber boats to make their way to Europe.[6] In the last year alone, more than 3,000 migrants paid the ultimate price for this journey.[7] Refugees are attempting to escape war, famine, natural disasters, political and religious persecution, as well as armed conflict in countries like Cameroon, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.[8]

Unable to stay in their home countries, refugees must rely on smugglers and human traffickers.[9] Refugees are often jam-packed on boats for voyages that range from hours to days at sea, often facing hazardous weather and treacherous waters.[10] Thousands of refugees drown every year while trying to reach Europe.[11] In 2017, refugee arrivals to Spain tripled from the previous year with almost 21,500 arriving by sea.[12] Those who make it across face closed European borders, where authorities detain and deport migrants instead of providing humanitarian relief.[13]

On January 10, 2018, Libyan authorities rescued 279 people after an overcrowded boat carrying hundreds of African refugees sank off the coast of Libya.[14] Another 100 or so remain missing and are feared to have drowned.[15] This recent tragedy prompted a spokesperson for the United Nations (“U.N.” to condemn smugglers for their role in the crisis.[16] While smugglers exacerbate the issue, as the U.N. spokesperson made clear, a comprehensive policy is still needed to address this humanitarian crisis.

Preventing refugee deaths requires providing alternative ways for migrants to travel to Europe.[17] According to Amnesty International, “[t]he world’s system for protecting refugees is broken.”[18] Refugees need safe routes to sanctuary, resettlement, open borders, investigation and prosecution of trafficking gangs, national policies to combat xenophobia and racial discrimination, and the recognition of asylum as a human right.[19]

The refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, a new study claims that climate change will increase the number of refugees in coming years.[20] Climate experts warn that unless stronger action is taken to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of global warming will “. . . result in as many as 660,000 additional asylum seekers coming to Europe each year by 2100.”[21]

Only time will tell how the political landscape will shift to respond to increased migration precipitated by climate changes. One thing is clear, though: displaced peoples will continue to arrive on European shores, or perish in “death boats.”[22] As for Mardini, her wishes for the future are simple: “I hope that they will open the borders for refugees, and I hope to get a medal in the Olympics, and that my home town is in peace again.”[23]

[1] Emma Batha, From Syria to the Olympics, refugee tells how she swam for her life, Reuters (Aug. 1, 2016, 2:30 PM),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Megan Specia, A Look Inside a Rescuer’s Struggle to Save Migrants from Sinking Dinghy, N.Y Times (Jan. 8, 2017),

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] The Associated Press, Libya Rescues 279 Migrants at Sea, but 100 More Are Feared Dead, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2017),

[11] Sarah Mersch, World in Progress: Graves for anonymous migrants, Deutsche Welle (Oct. 1, 2018),

[12] News Wire. Migrant arrivals by sea to Spain tripled in 2017 on the previous year, fueled by a surge in the numbers of Algerians and Moroccans, while over 200 died trying to make the crossing, France 24 (Dec. 29, 2017),

[13] Id.

[14] The Associated Press, supra note 10.

[15] Id.

[16] Specia, supra note 6.

[17] Id.

[18] Amnesty International, 8 Ways to Solve the World Refugee Crisis: Protecting refugees is not somebody else’s problem,

[19] Id.

[20] Fiona Harvey, Devastating climate change could lead to 1m migrants a year entering EU by 2100, The Guardian (Dec. 21, 2017, 2:00 PM),

[21] Id.

[22] Mersch, supra note 11.

[23] Batha, supra note 1.

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