“My family drowned.”

More than 20,000 people have died or have been reported missing between 2014–2020 while trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

2014 142078965
out of
People died

Sea Rescue:

Humanitarian Duty

or Assisting

IRREGULAR Immigration?

“Sea rescue is actually a state task. It’s not at all the point of civil society doing it. We’re really only doing it because nobody else is. We don’t have a refugee crisis. We have a crisis of solidarity.”

Carola Rackete, 2019
Captain of the Sea-Watch 3, entered the port of Lampedusa in 2019 with refugees on board despite a ban. She was arrested for three days for resisting the Italian coast guard. On May 19, 2021, the case was dropped.

Sea Watch 3 on which captain Carola Rackete brought refugees to Italy against the government’s will
© Sea Watch e.V.
Number of refugees entering the EU through the Mediterranean routes and the Canary Islands over time (rounded)

Facts and


Since 2014 nearly 2 million refugees reached Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.

After peaking at one million in 2015, the numbers steadily declined (compared to 2020 with 95.031 refugees).

Instead of using the Mediterranean Sea route, more and more people are using the Atlantic route in 2020. This route uses the Canary Islands to reach the EU.

According to estimates of the UNHCR more than 20,000 people have died or are still missing.

Private Sea Rescue:

Protection Vacuum

or Pull-Factor?

Supporters of private sea aid detect a protection vacuum due to the decline of state-run sea rescue efforts (after 2015), which has resulted in more deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.

The pull-factor, on the other hand, posits that more rescue ships could motivate more people to undertake the dangerous journey and the number of deaths would increase accordingly.

Recent data does not indicate a pull-factor, but recognises an increased risk for refugees as a result of the termination of
state-run rescue programmes.

Legal Foundation

The International Convention for Sea Rescue (SAR) and the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) serve as a basis for international maritime law.

Every ship is compelled to, within its means, help people in distress at sea.

Rescued persons are to be taken to a safe harbour within a reasonable space of time.

People are not to be taken to a country where they would face violence or persecution – e.g. Libya (non-refoulement principle).



According to BAMF, the average costs of fleeing one’s home country to Germany is 7,000 €.

The major part of the costs is for means of transport – approximately 4,000 €. Refugees have to pay an average of 3,100 € to human traffickers and their accomplices.

Additionally, the cost of accommodation while fleeing
costs an average of 460 €.

The refugee and migratory movement has developed into an industry in both the countries of origin and transit as many different parties involved attempt to profit from it.

7,000 € is the average cost of fleeing from one’s home country to Germany, BAMF 2016





2015 TO 2020

There are three ways for refugees to reach Europe: by air, land and / or sea. Numerous routes have developed over time as a result of migration and forced migration processes. Refugee and migratory routes are not fixed, but adapt to the respective conditions and are therefore flexible.

Refugee and migratory routes, 2015–2020, Süddeutsche Zeitung 2019

by air

The regular use of planes to enter the EU is almost impossible for many refugees and migrants.

A humanitarian EU visa, which must be applied for at an embassy or other consular office outside Europe, could reduce human suffering. However, the European Court of Justice ruled that EU states are not obliged to implement such a measure.

By land and sea

As visas are difficult to obtain, refugees and migrants often use land and sea routes to get to Europe. Refugee and migratory routes by land and sea are classified and named differently according to their path.

common Routes


West African Route: by sea from Mauritania, Western Sahara or Morocco to the Canary Islands

Western Mediterranean Route: by sea from Morocco or Algeria to Spain

Central Mediterranean Route: by sea from Tunisia or Libya to Italy or Malta

Eastern Mediterranean Route: by sea or land via Turkey to Greece and/or Albania and/or Bulgaria

by land, via the only land borders between Africa and Europe:
from Morocco to the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla

Adriatic Route: by sea from the Balkans to Italy

Polar Route: by land from Russia to Finland and Norway

Central Eastern European Route: via the Ukraine to Romania, Slovakia, Hungary or Poland

Refugee routes
Civil war
Movement for
Refugee routes over the Mediterranean in 2017, Bundesministerium der Verteidigung 2017

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes has surpassed 82 million in 2020. Of these, 48 million are internally displaced people who have remained within their own country.

In 2015, more than a million people fled to Europe through the Mediterranean routes, making it a record year for migration. But a lot has changed since then – fewer and fewer people are attempting to get to Europe by irregular means. The number of asylum applications in Europe fell by 64% in 2020 compared to 2015.

62015 20789
Number of refugees over time, 2015

Ongoing conflicts and the unstable situation in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have triggered a wave of refugee migration along the Eastern Mediterranean Route.

Similarly, the number of refugees from African countries continues to rise – especially from countries affected by the Arab Spring.

Number of refugees over time, 2016

The EU-Turkey Declaration came into force in autumn 2016.

The Eastern Mediterranean Route and the Western Balkan Route have been blocked since 2016.

At the same time, the Central Mediterranean Route has been the main route for refugees and migrants from African countries.

Number of refugees over time, 2017

According to the European Council, the number of migrants on the Eastern Mediterranean Route has declined by 77% compared to 2016.

The agreement between the EU and Turkey has played a significant role in reducing irregular migration.

Number of refugees over time, 2018

The Central Mediterranean Route has been the most used refugee and migratory route to the EU in recent years.

The number of refugees has decreased significantly on large portions of routes. At the same time, however, there has been more frequent use of the Western Mediterranean Route.

Number of refugees over time, 2019

The number of refugees using the Eastern Mediterranean Route dropped by 90% from 2019 compared to 2015.

In 2019, Frontex recorded 139,000 irregular crossings over the external border, the lowest number since 2013.

The number of migrants who have reached the EU through Turkey has sharply risen by 23% in 2019.

Number of refugees over time, 2020

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, activists were largely forced to suspend their sea rescue operations and many borders were closed. Accordingly, the proportion of migrants able to gain access to European islands or the mainland fell by 13% compared to the previous year.

At the end of February, Ankara had attracted more than 20,000 refugees with the promise of open borders with Greece and thus with the EU. For a month they tried again and again to cross the border river Evros, often supported by the Turkish army. But Greece kept its national border tight.

Migration via the Western Balkan route grew by 78%.

Number of refugees over time, 2015-2020, Süddeutsche Zeitung
Cartographic represenation of a new refugee and migratory route from Eritrea to Uganda, with the preliminary destination of South America, Deutsche Welle 2019

NEW Refugee AND



Due to obstruction of the “classical routes”refugees face the challenge of discovering new routes.

Presently, for example, many Eritreans flee by flying to South America first – their final destination often being North America.

Instead of using the Mediterranean Sea route, more and more people are using the Atlantic route in 2020. This route uses the Canary Islands to reach the EU.

The costs can reach 30,000 USD.

Obstacles and


During the

perilous Journey

Geographic Obstacles

Natural obstacles such as the Mediterranean Sea, deserts and mountain ranges present a huge challenge for the refugees.

The number of unreported deaths in the Sahara desert is estimated to be higher than during the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.

Securing steady supply of food, clothing and medication is additional obstacle.

Refugees reach the coastal waters of Lesbos in Greece © Wikimedia Commons, Giga, CC BY-SA 4.0
Refugees attempt to clear a barbed wire fence at an unpatrolled sequence at the Serbian – Hungarian border.
© picture alliance, REUTERS, Bernadett Szabo
People in distress near the Libyan coast © picture alliance, SOS Mediterranee, Laurin Schmid


and Border Crossing

While fleeing, refugees have to often rely on human traffickers and smugglers for assistance.

The safe crossing of sea and land borders becomes increasingly difficult as those are patrolled more often.