IBTPOTY2016
Refugees and migrants packed onto an inflatable dinghy reach Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean from Turkey, on 17 February 2016Aris Messinis/AFP

This has been a grim year for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. The United Nations says a record 5,000 migrants have drowned, mostly on the Libya-to-Italy route.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) figures show that 358,403 people entered Europe by Sea in 2016, most of who arrived in Greece and Italy. The number of migrants entering Europe by sea has decreased this year. Even so this makes 2016 the deadliest year on record. An average of 14 people have died every day in the Mediterranean Sea during 2016.

Last year when a million people crossed the Mediterranean, 3,771 causalities were recorded. That figure was surpassed in October when the death toll hit 3,800. Following two shipwrecks last week of the Italian coast, in which 100 mostly West African migrants perished, the death toll has now reached 5,000.

This is a terrible milestone. These are innocent men, women and children who have lost their lives seeking a better life in Europe. Their deaths should be a wake-up call for European leaders to take decisive action. Yet, EU states continue to militarise Europe's borders, and maintain a policy that lets migrants die as a way of deterring others from coming.

Several EU states have focused on closing their external borders. Hungary has promised to build a new fence along its southern border, which will add to its 500km razor-wire fence it built last year on its border with Croatia and Serbia. Meanwhile, Austria has closed its border to almost all asylum seekers.

Migration has in recent years become a huge issue for voters across Europe, and has driven many into the arms of populist right wing parties.

The EU may be facing a myriad of problems, but it still remains the largest economy in the world. It can and should do more to avoid these unnecessary deaths. Migrants come to Europe in part because of the freedoms we enjoy. This is what inspires so many migrants to risk their lives in search of a European dream.

This year the migrant crisis has rarely hit the headlines and it has slipped from the public view, but it has not disappeared. Italy has received record numbers this year and is struggling to cope with the influx of migrants reaching its shores. This year marks not just the worst annual death toll ever recorded in the Mediterranean Sea, but also the year in which Europe stopped caring.

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Next year will not bring a solution to this crisis; it may in fact complicate matters. The EU faces a crucial year with elections in three key member states and the start of the Brexit negotiations.

There are elections in the Netherlands in March, where Geert Wilder's Party for Freedom has led polls for months and may unseat the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. April sees the first round of the French presidential elections, where the Front National leader Marie Le Pen might make it to the second round of the elections in May.

In the autumn Angela Merkel will seek a historic fourth term as Chancellor of Germany. She has been badly damaged by her policy to let refugees into Germany in 2015, and she has said in 2016 that there will be no repeat of that policy. Plus the recent terrorist attacks in Berlin have badly shaken Germany. There is no guarantee that Merkel will win a fourth term.

Europe may continue with the same policies in 2017 of pushing away its migrant problem, but that will not stop migrants from coming.

This all poses a huge challenge for Europe's capacity to deal with the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean. Migration has in recent years become a huge issue for voters across Europe, and has driven many into the arms of populist right wing parties.

In 2017 there may be many more migrant deaths before we see EU leaders come together to provide long-term solutions to this crisis. At least in the short term there is little Europe can do to stem the tide of migrants coming. The journeys migrants make start far from the EU's borders. But, in the meantime the issue has been the unwillingness to view the problem as a humanitarian one that requires not only a search and rescue mission, but also willingness on the part of European states to welcome and resettle migrants.

Europe may continue with the same policies in 2017 of pushing away its migrant 'problem', but that will not stop migrants from coming. If Europe is serious in ending these unnecessary deaths, then it needs to provide safe passage and legal routes for migrants to come to Europe. But, in the end the issues can only be resolved on the ground in developing countries by tackling poverty and joblessness.

To end this tide of human misery into Europe, then we must look to the source countries. But, this will take time; it's hard to see short-term solution to Syria's civil war or an end of Eritrea's brutal dictatorship.


Ismail Einashe is a freelance journalist, researcher and a contributing editor at Warscapes, a foreign affairs magazine. He tweets @IsmailEinashe