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Europe Grapples With How To Deal With Influx Of Migrants


We've also been learning more about the desperate journey tens of thousands of migrants make across the Mediterranean. This week, the world's attention focused on a crisis as possibly 900 people lost their lives in a single capsizing. But boats that are barely seaworthy have been sinking in the Mediterranean for years. This is part of a much broader crisis, as we learned from the International Organization for Migration. Our colleague Renee Montagne spoke to that organization's spokesman.


Joel Millman is following these tragic events closely. The primary focus of his intergovernmental organization is displaced people. He says some in this current exodus are looking for economic opportunity; others fleeing far off conflicts and all have made their way to the coast of Libya.

JOEL MILLMAN: The chaos in a place like Libya is really what is feeding this migration through there. I mean, criminal gangs, essentially, are acting with impunity because there's no real government to stop them. And the Mediterranean is a great big sea to police, so there's many opportunities to put people across in these boats. Unfortunately, thousands of people are getting killed.

MONTAGNE: So the lack of a government in Libya has given a big opening for people to know that they have a place that they can launch themselves across the Mediterranean. What countries are they coming from?

MILLMAN: Well, last year, there were - 170,000 people crossed the Mediterranean for Italy and 42,000 were from Syria. The next largest group - 39,000 - was Eretrian. So you have almost half that 170,000 were from those two countries, both of which are considered terribly conflicted zones, either at war or under a terrible oppressive regime. We have other segments of migrant travel - Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, has been very active in this area. So we know that that's been a huge contributing force - you know, civil strife, conflict in the region. But now we have a new component, which is the West African, let's say, guest worker or migrant worker, the kind of individual that, for decades now, has been making a living in Libya itself. Many of the migrants we're seeing actually have spent years in Libya already. They're beginning to leave Libya in big numbers now because it's just not safe.

MONTAGNE: And what happens to those who make it across the Mediterranean? Where do most of them end up?

MILLMAN: All over Europe. They mostly go to Germany, Austria, Belgium, where jobs are plentiful right now - Scandinavia where a lot of them have family already. Virtually, no Syrian remains in Italy. Who does tend to remain in Italy are some of the newer countries - you know, people from Togo or Gambia. And from there they may head to the same countries I mentioned before.

MONTAGNE: But when you say that they are processed and sent on into these countries that means these countries are accepting these migrants.

MILLMAN: Not 100 percent. I mean, there are deportations. I mean, there are some countries and some individuals that just aren't going to satisfy all the barriers, and so it's not a golden ticket. Not everybody gets to stay. But it's similarly to what happened last year in the U.S. with the many unaccompanied minors. There is an ability to overwhelm the system and just crowd the reception centers and just make it impossible for these countries to simply monitor them. These countries don't have unlimited resources, so they have to do what they can.

MONTAGNE: The International Organization for Migration is pushing for European countries to set up centers to process would-be migrants in their home countries. But that will take time and political will, and Joel Millman isn't sure that this latest unprecedented loss of life will be a turning point.

MILLMAN: We thought Lampedusa in 2013 could be a turning point. We thought Malta last September could be a turning point. We know that we're dealing with an equally active anti-migrant sentiment that's building across Europe. And fortunately, these incidents, especially last week when there were so much press on what may be an apocryphal story of Muslims tossing Christians off their boat - I mean, that just sends a message that sectarian violence is going to come to a neighborhood near you. We understand, you know, the public media image of the countries where these folks are coming from is not positive in most of Europe right now. So it's a lot to ask people to do. Obviously, we hope that the conscience of the world is shocked in such a way that it does happen, but we're not waiting for turning points. We're waiting for action from these governments.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

MILLMAN: Thank you, Renee.

GREENE: That's Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration speaking with our colleague Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.