Guest post by Karolina S. Follis. Karolina teaches in the Department of Politics, Philosophy & Religion at Lancaster University. Her research concerns the European border regime and she is the author of Building Fortress Europe: The Polish-Ukrainian Frontier.

It’s winter in the Northern hemisphere, an inauspicious time for maritime journeys. And yet a place on a boat headed from North African shores towards Italy or Malta is a commodity for which traffickers can charge up to 5,000 US dollars, now or at any other time of the year. After 2013’s forty-five thousand arrivals, people have not stopped coming. Hundreds continue escaping conflict and oppressive regimes. After last autumn’s tragic shipwrecks, the EU has accelerated work on its EUROSUR programme, and Italian authorities initiated operation Mare Nostrum. Multiple successful rescues were reported in January and February. But that's not a sign of a diminishing problem. The political situation in the countries of origin is unlikely to improve anytime soon. The EU’s policy response emphasizes surveillance and control at the cost of aid and the opening of legal immigration routes. Considering these factors, the future of life at sea looks grim.

Migrants land on Lampedusa Island in Italy (Photo: UNHCR/N. Foy)
My current research asks how European organizations and civil society respond to the recent migrant boat disasters off the coasts of Italy, Greece, and Spain. In this post, I reflect on the question of how we know what we know about boat migrations in the first place. As anyone who has researched this issue knows, relevant statistics are usually partial and imprecise. First hand accounts are difficult to gather. Unless we seek out affected migrants ourselves, we hear only from those survivors who get a chance to tell their story and have it passed on to a wider audience. On those rare occasions that they are heard, migrants must overcome the incredulity of listeners. For instance, in a recent book on journalism and migration, the reporter John Hooper writes that “as is well known to anyone who has dealt with clandestine migrants, they often lie. … [and] sometimes they exaggerate the hazards and discomforts of their journeys to garner sympathy.” It's difficult to say exactly how widespread among journalists is the perception that migrants are deceptive. Harder still would be to know how many deadly migrant journeys go unrecorded simply because someone deemed the story unbelievable.

Among the organizations which gather and disseminate quantitative data on maritime migration, there is a split between those who try to estimate the traffic as a whole, and those who are interested in documenting loss of life. As befits an organization whose mandate is to “manage” migration, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) attempts to count “arrivals.” Frontex, on the other hand, offers the number of “detections of illegal border crossings.” The UNHCR has done some important work assessing how many migrants died at sea in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in 2011. According to a UNHCR spokesperson, “estimates were based on interviews with migrants who reached Europe by boat, telephone and e-mail communication from their relatives, as well as reports from Libya and Tunisia from survivors whose boats either sank or were in distress.” The agency eventually arrived at the number of 1,500 deaths in that year, which was subsequently cited in several other reports. To my knowledge, there is no equivalent estimate for 2012 or 2013, though various partial figures have been circulated. Apart from official statistics, many researchers track other sites which compile data from multiple sources, such as Gabriele Del Grande’s Fortress Europe blog and the list of deaths compiled by United Against Racism in the Netherlands. The former was cited by Human Rights Watch, while the latter appears as a source in the Annual Report for 2013 of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.

Europe's three frontiers by Philippe Rekacewicz
This circulation of incomplete data reveals something important about the politics of accounting for migrant deaths. Reliable numbers, and systematic knowledge of the problem more generally, are vital when attempting to make a moral case for effective rescue and robust assistance to migrants. But gathering such information requires resources. Most migrants’ rights advocates operate on a shoestring budget, short on the time and money needed to build a comprehensive picture of what's going on. They have no choice but to raise awareness based on the partial knowledge that they have. Things could not be more different with, as Ruben Andersson calls it, the “illegality industry,” that is the varied group of national and international agencies and private interests engaged in the profitable business of bordering Europe. These actors suffer no shortage of resources. They can use them to document the effectiveness of their own actions, measured by the numbers of migrants who are “rescued”―that is, intercepted, detained and, if possible, returned back to where they came from. These data help them make the case for further investments in the industry and for its ongoing expansion.

Building a picture of the situation in the Mediterranean is never a neutral process. If accurate numbers are difficult to come by, rarer still are factual accounts of particular disasters and (failed) rescue operations. One example is the 2012 report prepared by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur Tineke Strik on the 2011 case of the boat carrying migrants who were left to die on the way from Libya to Lampedusa. Based on interviews with the  survivors, authorities, maritime rescue centers, and NGOs, as well as  collaboration with academics and documentary filmmakers, the report shows how 61 of 72 passengers of the boat lost their lives after calls for help were ignored by passing aircraft and military vessels. Major daily papers drew extensively on the report’s findings, and the case became known in Europe and beyond. It became a symbol of the crisis on the Mediterranean and of the EU’s and NATO’s willful impotence in responding to it. This coming April in Strasbourg, Strik will present the results of her follow-up report on the actions and reactions to the left-to-die boat case. When they are publicized, it's worth remembering that the new findings will not be circulating in a vacuum, but in a charged space where no facts stay neutral for very long.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Follis K (2014) The Politics of Life at Sea: A Note on Sources. Available at: (accessed [date]).