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Central Mediterranean migration route

Migration flows from North Africa to Italy and, to a lesser extent, Malta are referred to as the Central Mediterranean Route. This is the most commonly used route to the EU. This essay will outline how the Central Mediterranean route evolved over time and will emphasize the importance of Libya as the country of origin for the majority of illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach the European Union.

Despite the fact that the Central Mediterranean route is the most popular means to join the European Union, there are few sources that provide accurate statistics of irregular migrant crossings as well as information on destination cities. The EU border agency does not share specifics on where detections occur. The most popular port of embarkation has shifted several times in the last 20 years, with Libya now being the most popular transit point following the fall of the Kaddafi dictatorship. Since 2011, Libya has served as a major transit point for irregular migrants heading to Europe.

This article will provide a summary of the amount of irregular migrants via the Central Mediterranean route, including nationality distinctions where possible. Following that, there will be a discussion of how the migration patterns of irregular migrants from Libya and Tunisia to Malta have altered. Finally, a breakdown of the projected costs of crossing the Mediterranean with the assistance of smugglers will be provided.

Numbers of people crossing

In the second quarter of 2014 (January to June), migrants crossing EU marine borders accounted for 90% of all detections of unlawful border crossings into European member states. Frontex reported 53,000 detections along the Central Mediterranean Route in the second quarter of 2014, accounting for over three-quarters of all irregular border-crossing detections. According to Frontex, detections at EU borders surged by more than 170 percent in the second quarter of 2014 as compared to the second quarter of 2013.

Italy reported eight times more irregular migrants detected in the second quarter of 2014 than in the same period in 2013. According to Frontex (2015), the total number of detections made in 2014 was 170,664. The increased number of illegal migrants found utilizing the Central Mediterranean is due not just to improving weather conditions, but also to the presence of a large number of Sub-Saharan Africans and Syrians in Libya’s coastal districts.

Syrian nationals accounted for 23% (39,651) of all Frontex (2015) detections along the Central Mediterranean Route in 2014. Syrian detections more than sevenfold increased in the third quarter of 2014 compared to the same period in 2013. Eritrean nationals made up approximately 20% (33,559) of the irregular migrants recorded by Frontex along the Central Mediterranean Route. Nationals of Sub-Saharan African countries were the third-largest category of migrants, accounting for 14% (24,672) of all detections.

Deaths of people crossing

The Mediterranean Sea has become the most permeable and deadly border between Europe and its neighbors in the last three decades. According to media accounts, 15,016 migrants died or went missing at sea between January 1998 and September 30, 2014. The danger of dying when crossing the Mediterranean Sea is around 2%. That makes it as deadly as having a heart attack or a car crash.

Since the Italian government started the Mare Nostrum rescue operation from October 2013 to October 2014 in response to several boat accidents that resulted in the deaths of over 600 persons at sea, UNHCR reported that more over 20,000 migrants had been saved at the time of writing. According to Frontex, a total of 29,191 migrants were saved from the Mediterranean Sea in 2013.


The increase of irregular migration to Europe by sea started in the 1990s after Spain and Italy introduced stricter visa regimes. As stated in the previous section, Libya became the main source of migrant boats heading for Europe. While Libya has traditionally been a destination country for migrants from other Arab and African countries, irregular migration from Libya to Europe is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The increase in irregular sea migration to Europe began in the 1990s after Spain and Italy implemented harsher visa systems. As noted in the preceding section, Libya has become the primary supplier of migrant boats en route to Europe. While Libya has long been a destination place for migrants from other Arab and African countries, irregular migration from Libya to Europe is a new phenomenon.

Sabratha, Libya, was once a major departure point for migrants sailing to Europe by sea, but this was no longer the case by 2013. The number of boats leaving Sabratha had decreased, owing primarily to increased government monitoring in Libya. The majority of migrant boats currently leave from the coast between Tripoli and Zuwarah. Libya’s main departure points in 2010 included Zuwarah (56 kilometers from the Tunisian border), Zilten, and Misratah, as well as the region around Tripoli. The port cities of Zilten and Zuwarah were also popular embarkation points in 2013.


In the case of migrants leaving Tunisia, they travel to southern Sicily via ports north and south of Tunis. Those bound for Pantelleria left from Cap Bon, while those bound for Lampedusa and Linosa left from places south of Monastir. It was predicted that sailing to Pantelleria or Lampedusa would take around 10 hours, weather permitting, and that sailing to Sicily would take between two and three days or more. Increased border checks on the Tunisian coast have also resulted in an increase in the number of irregular migrants departing from the Libyan coast. Estimates on the number of irregular migrants leaving Tunisia or Libya are hazy. The most common point of entry into the European Union is Libya.


Migrants departing from Tunisia and Libya are most commonly arriving in Malta or Italy. It is unknown how many of the more than 170,000 detected persons using the Central Mediterranean route reached the island of Malta. Malta is not as popular a destination as Italy.

Until 2005, Malta was a major point of entrance and departure for irregular migrants seeking to enter the EU. Before Malta joined the EU in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the island served as a transit point for North Africans and even Asian migrants, primarily from China. Migrants used to arrive by plane and then be transferred by local traffickers in small boats to southern Sicily.

Many of the irregular migrants apprehended and imprisoned in Malta had no intention of visiting the island and had no desire to stay. They were looking for ways to continue their journey to Italy and other mainland EU member countries. Malta’s position as a transit hub was rapidly eroding in 2008, as migrants found it difficult to leave the island for other destinations.


In the early 2000s, the cost of the sea travel from the Libyan coast to Lampedusa was expected to be over USD 800, rising to around USD 2,000 by the end of the decade. The UNHCR estimated the cost to be between USD 300 and 2,000, depending on the smuggler and the season, with passage in the winter months being less expensive because the sea is rougher, making the trip more perilous.

Moroccan migrants arriving in Lampedusa in the summer of 2006 said that smugglers were paid roughly € 2,000 for the trek from Morocco to Libya and then to Italy. The passage between Libya and Italy cost USD 3,000 in 2010. This has increased from USD 1,200 in 2006 to USD 800 in 2004. Cost increases for smugglers’ more comprehensive services, which are thought to include receiving facilities in Italy.

Sources: United Nations UniversityIrregular Migration Routes to Europe and Factors Influencing Migrants’ Destination Choices

Photo by Jonathan Ramalho on Unsplash


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