Maritime migration - deadly waters take their toll

Thousands of migrants from the Horn of Africa continue to make the perilous journey to war-torn Yemen. Photo credit: TesfaNews, used with gratitude.

Maritime migration - deadly waters take their toll

February 19th, 2018. Written by: Chris Horwood  - Mixed Migration Centre.

Last week news emerged of another tragic incident resulting in deaths and injuries of those in mixed migration flows in Africa. According to UNHCR, on 14 February a truck transporting irregular migrants overturned in the Libyan town of Bani Walid, killing at least 22 people. Another 79 people were injured and the local hospital described the situation as "catastrophic."

Unusually, the victims of this accident were close to hospitals, observers and state authorities – other incidents normally occur in remote locations and mostly go unrecorded. Stories of accidents, abandonments and deaths of those on the move may only be recorded long after the event by interviews and testimony from migrants themselves. Efforts to track the numbers of those who die while on the move are continually frustrated by geography, climate and the clandestine world in which human smuggling occurs.

It is widely assumed by experts recording ‘missing migrants’ that although the media often report on accidents involving those in mixed flows, most occur incognito, not least in coastal, inland and open waters.

This recent tragedy in Libya comes on the heels of reports earlier this month of the drownings of four refugees fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo in Lake Albert and seven migrants drowning trying to reach Spain’s Canary Islands from Morocco. Meanwhile drownings in the Mediterranean continue unabated and with grim reliability. A typical case was the 90 migrants drowning off Libya on 2 February – while over 400 have succumbed in the first 6 weeks of 2018 as boat departures from Libya to Europe increase. The current rate of death for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean (2.4 percent) is significantly above that of 2017 (1.7 percent) in the same period.

An inevitable characteristic of almost all cases of drownings in the context of migratory and refugee flows is that death occurs as a result overloading of vessels. Here the supply and demand dynamics of the human smuggling industry with its unregulated, clandestine and rent-seeking hallmarks combine with state official collusion and passengers’ lack of capacity (often without life vest, or with faulty life vests and most people unable to swim). Smugglers maximise profits by overloading and often their passengers (including women and children) have limited agency, particularly when smugglers coerce them with weapons and violence. Stories of broken engines, insufficient fuel, and boats already abandoned by smugglers are common. Combined with high winds, rough seas and panicked passengers the lethal results are all too common. In some cases, particularly in the Gulf of Aden off Yemen, drowned migrants and refugees are found with gunshot wounds, suggesting their actual cause of death was murder – often as the result or the cause of maritime capsize and/or extortion. For years, accounts of smugglers forcing passengers off their boats up to a kilometer off shore to avoid detection (or bribe payments to patrols) have characterised drownings off the coast of Yemen.

Although those drowning in the Mediterranean (en route to Spain, Italy or Greece) and even in the Black Sea (September 2017) have dominated the headlines in recent months and years, a brief overview of where migrants leaving Africa or moving within Africa are drown offers stark evidence of how deadly this means of irregular migration has been:

While people drown as they flee across Lake Albert, others have died sailing across Lake Malawi towards South Africa. In June 2014, an overloaded boat carrying about 60 Ethiopians and Somalis heading for South Africa capsized in Lake Malawi – one of various incidents recorded there. While the Mediterranean is the foremost migrant graveyard thousands have also lost their lives trying to sail to Spanish Islands off Western Africa. Some use coastal dhows to travel the eastern seaboard from Kenya to Tanzania, or Tanzania to Mozambique and even South Africa, but despite accounts of abandonment at sea without water or shelter from the elements no drownings have been publically reported.

Also thousands of those on the move from Africa to Yemen have lost their lives at sea in the last decade. Normally and (since reports from 2007) they drown through abuse, neglect and misadventure crossing from mainland Africa to Yemen but it also occurs on the return journey. In late January this year at least 30 refugees and migrants drowned off the coast of Aden, Yemen, after their boat capsized, on their way to Djibouti from Yemen. In a statement, the UN said the boat had capsized ‘amid reports of gunfire being used against the passengers’ by ‘unscrupulous smugglers’.

The case of French territory Mayotte is emblematic of overlooked cases of migrant drownings, as recently reported by IRIN. Situated near to the Islands of Comoros and part of the European Union the tiny island lies between Madagascar and Mozambique’s coast. Every year thousands of Comorians try to sail the short distance to Mayotte as irregular migrants in narrow fishing vessels called kwassa kwassa. According to a report from the French Senate, between 1995 and 2012 7,000 to 10,000 people died in these crossings – an alarming 1 per cent or more of the total Comoros population. The equivalent proportion of France’s population would be the drowning of over 670,000 Frenchmen in a period of 17 years. The Comorian authorities claim it is ‘the world’s largest marine cemetery’.

Some research suggests that most migrants and refugees are well aware of the risk of harm and death before they start their journey, but recent findings from 4Mi interviews with hundreds of female migrants from East Africa and the Horn show that 26 percent claim not to have been aware of the risks prior to travel. However, 29 per cent of those interviewed said they were aware of the risks prior to travel but they were worse than expected. Of those interviewed in West Africa 53 percent reported that they were unaware of the risks.

Often refugees and migrants, after handing themselves over to the charge of smugglers, have little choice in the routes, manner and conditions of their transportation. In the case of coastal departures or crossing inland waters when not coerced or misled by smugglers, they make the desperate calculation that fate will favour them and that their luck will not run out. As long as maritime movement is an integral part of irregular migration and the demand for human smugglers continues the death rate by drowning will unfortunately continue.


Share this article


Feature Article

Contact Us

Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat
DRC East Africa & Yemen
Lower Kabete Road
(Ngecha Road Junction)
P.O.Box 14762, 00800
Westlands, Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: (0)20 418 0403/4/5 (switchboard)


Subscribe to our monthly email alerts with mixed migration summaries, maps, feature articles and other new RMMS publications

Follow RMMS



Our Donors


The RMMS is primarily funded by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of the Swiss government and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development , with support from other donors for specific projects.