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One in every 23 migrants setting sail from Africa drowns - but does the British media care?

May 07th, 2015 - Posted by Doireann Clabby in Human Trafficking Awareness

When nearly 950 migrants fleeing Africa drowned off the coast of Libya on April 19, the issue was thrust back into the media spotlight after a period of relative quietness. With the Italian navy suspending the Mare Nostrum rescue effort in November last year, one could have been forgiven for thinking that migrant trafficking had ceased to be a problem.

The statistics, however, tell a different story: in just two months - February and March - 450 migrants drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.  The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 65 per cent of all those who died in 2014 did so in the Mediterranean, which claimed the lives of 3,500 people in total. In 2015 alone, 1,600 people have died trying to cross from North Africa. That's a 100-fold increase on the same period in 2014 when 17 people drowned.

And yet between January and April 18, the British media was publishing an average of between one and 10 articles per week on the subject – it took the tragedy in April to rekindle interest even though 800 people had already died in 2015.

David Cameron was quick to promise British help, offering RAF aircraft and diverting the Royal Navy flagship, HMS Bulwark, to the western Mediterranean to try to rescue migrants.

trafficking migrants graph

Digging into the statistics, which show more than 20 articles in the week of April 19 and almost 30 seven days later, it seems that it took Ed Miliband turning migrant trafficking into an election issue for the media to really sit up and take notice.  While there was a good deal of coverage of the tragedy in the Mediterranean itself, there was even more when the Labour leader suggested that David Cameron's lack of postwar planning in Libya had contributed to the tragedy.

The indignation which followed Miliband's claim was almost entirely responsible for the spike in articles published on migrant trafficking.  No 10 claimed that the Labour leader's allegation was "shameful" while a number of media outlets accused him of sinking to a "new low", behaving disgracefully and being "absolutely offensive".  Almost none of them reserved much space to the soul searching among European leaders over whether to pay Italy to restart Mare Nostrum.

That is in stark contrast to mainland European media where the April 19 tragedy and what Europe's response should be have continued to make headlines.  EU leaders have promised to treble funding of rescue operations but there is considerable scepticism over whether this is anywhere near enough to stop what is rapidly turning into one of the world's biggest humanitarian tragedies.

Since the furore over Miliband's intervention, the British media's interest in migrant trafficking has resumed normal service.  But the crisis in the Mediterranean goes on: over the weekend of May 2 and 3, there were 34 separate operations by the Italian navy with more than 6,500 people rescued.

Even though one in every 23 who sets sail from Africa continues to die in the water, migrant trafficking is no longer an election issue nor, it seems, something the UK media is particularly interested in.

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