Adriana Tragedy and Peril of Human Trafficking in Mediterranean Sea

On June 10, a fishing trawler named Adriana, overloaded with migrants set sail from Tobruk, Libya. The vessel, with estimated 750 people on-board, was destined for Italian coast. But on June 14, the vessel capsized 50 miles off the southern town of Pylos, Greece, flinging all on-board. According to recent media reports, 600 migrants – majority of which were Pakistani nationals – lost their lives. Only 104 people have been rescued. To condole deaths of Pakistani migrants, Government of Pakistan observed June 19th as Day of Mourning.

Questions have been raised regarding the performance of Greek coast guard in this tragedy. Despite prior information of Adriana adrift, Greek authorities didn’t respond timely. Allegedly, Greek coast guards treated the situation as law enforcement operation instead of rescue operation. Greek Coast Guard Vessel 920, which was first to approach Adriana, showcased a threatening posture which unsettled the migrants. According to eye witness accounts, Greek vessel attempted to tow the vessel by ropes and the vessel capsized during towing process. If Greek authorities have acted in a responsible manner, scale of death could have been prevented.

Greek authorities, in contrast, have denied such allegations by stating that rope was tied to stabilize the migrants’ vessel. The panic on-board vessel disturbed the balance which resulted in capsizing. Greek officials are denying detailed answers. Irrespective of Greek stance, criticism is gradually mounting over Europe’s failure to curb losses of migrants’ lives. European nations have taken several measures, including capacity enhancement of European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, with drones and surveillance aircrafts. But these measures are falling short of surging rate of human trafficking.

Despite the Greek authorities’ claims that the Adriana was heading towards Italy and the migrants had no desire to be rescued, concrete evidence from satellite imagery and tracking data acquired by The New York Times reveals that the Adriana was actually caught in a continuous loop during its final six and a half hours. Survivors, under oath, further substantiated this evidence by recounting instances where passengers on the ship’s upper decks desperately sought assistance, including attempts to board a commercial tanker that had halted to offer drinking water.

Human migration via Mediterranean Sea has long history. Every year, thousands of migrants use illicit means to enter Europe. The migration routes across Mediterranean are amongst most dangerous particularly when annual migrants’ death toll in taken into account. According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) more than 1,871 migrants have gone missing in first half of this year during Mediterranean crossing. Last year, 2,406 migrants were reported missing. Since 2014, over 27,629 migrants have lost their lives in Mediterranean. Measures were taken to improve the surveillance system to timely respond with rescue services to reduce fatalities. However, the death rate of migrants in Mediterranean Sea has continued to increase. The increased fatality rate is directly linked with increased migration rate in recent years. Due to persistent political instability and economic woes in under-developed regions, the rate of migration is rapidly increasing. The incident, deadliest of its kind, represents a grim reality of chasm that exists between developed and developing world.

Migrants, despite being the primary victims of human trafficking, are mostly aware of life threatening difficulties involved in trafficking process. Yet, people are willing to pass through these perilous journeys in pursuit of a promising future. This makes the illicit migrants the victims of choice for human trafficking mafias. Reasons why people show willingness to undertake such risks vary from region to region. But, the fundamental rational for all migrants is same: to escape the misery of their native countries and find better place for themselves and their families to survive and thrive.

Mediterranean Sea is often viewed as maritime gateway into Europe. In general, there are three major transit routes through Mediterranean, i.e. Eastern, Western, and Central. Strait of Gibraltar in Western Mediterranean is the shortest and most feasible route – particularly in summer times. Aegean Sea in Eastern Mediterranean is also used by migrants to enter Greece from Turkish Western coast. Human trafficking in both these regions have been curbed significantly due to transnational collective measures and geographical feasibility. The Central Mediterranean, however, is still the core of human trafficking and is the most deadly region for migrants.

The sinking of migrant boat has raised serious concerns regarding the efficiency of counter-human trafficking measures being taken by European Union. European Commission’s “Fighting Migrant Smuggling: 2021-2025 Action Plan” has placed prevention and countering of human smuggling at the core of its approach to migration. The action plan is focussed on information exchange, deepening targeted co-operation with nations of origin and transit, and crafting policies for countering human smuggling. On flip side, such crackdown by European Union has compelled traffickers to adopt more dangerous and risky routes to reach destination. Therefore, an expansion of operation by law enforcement agencies and increased co-operation and data sharing is needed to ensure comprehensive coverage of Mediterranean regions vulnerable to illicit trafficking of humans and goods.

For countering human trafficking, measures must be taken at national, regional, and international levels. In brief, five such measures can be highlighted. First, maritime security can be enhanced by increasing surveillance at sea, particularly in high-risk zones, by deploying surface vessels, air crafts, drones and other maritime assets. Second, intelligence sharing and mutual co-operation should be encouraged between law enforcement agencies and governments. Third, the capacity building of law enforcement agencies may be undertaken by providing specialized training and dedicated equipment for detecting and intercepting human trafficking. Fourth, the traffickers and facilitators should be targeted directly with legal and kinetic means to disrupt their networks. And finally, robust anti-trafficking legislation that criminalizes all forms of trafficking and enforce effective punishment should be adopted using victim centric approach. The implementation of these will degrade human trafficking by facilitating prosecution of traffickers and protection of victims.

Besides taking anti-human trafficking measures, there is need to undermine the factors which are creating migrants in first place. By adopting and implementing long-term strategy for economic and human development, the trend of illicit migration to developed nations can be minimized to great extent. The reliance on illicit means for migration can be undermined by establishing safe and legal migration pathways for refugees and asylum seekers. Moreover, awareness should be raised at public level regarding risks associated with human trafficking to undermine the functionality of such networks. Human trafficking is an organized transnational crime. Therefore, collective action and multi-dimensional approach involving all stakeholders is required to overcome this crime against humanity.

Ahmad Ibrahim
Ahmad Ibrahim
The author is an Independent Researcher and holds M.Phil Degree in Strategic Studies from National Defence University.