Deadly Mediterranean migrant wave will be tough to thwart

"They're spending 15 to 20 times the price of a plane ticket to make the most atrocious journey of their lives," says one expert.

The tragedy of migrants dying by the hundreds in an attempt at a better life has brought an outcry for an international response to stop illegal human smuggling and end the suffering. But powerful economic forces will make that hard.

A boat transporting migrants arrives in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at see on April 18, 2015 in Sicily.
Giovanni Isolino | AFP | Getty Images
A boat transporting migrants arrives in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at see on April 18, 2015 in Sicily.

This week, the European Union proposed doubling the size of its Mediterranean search and rescue operations, as the first bodies were brought ashore from among some 900 people feared killed in the deadliest wreck of a ship trying to land migrants ashore in Europe.

The immigrant wave is being driven by strong demand for passage from people fleeing civil unrest, persecution or chronic unemployment in their home countries.

Read MoreShipping industry sends SOS over Mediterranean crisis

"There is such a mass of people who are disposed at any cost to leave and come with the prospect of jobs or liberty and a better future," said Marianna Vintiadis, who heads the Italian office of Kroll Associates, a global risk management consultant. "They're spending 15 to 20 times the price of a plane ticket to make the most atrocious journey of their lives."

Smugglers who arrange those lethal passages stand to generate huge profits. The often deadly business model involves a relatively small investment in an ancient, sometimes unseaworthy vessel, which is then crammed with desperate passengers paying as much as $1,000 each for the treacherous and unsupervised trip. (Tweet This)

Many of the aging vessels are then abandoned at sea, with immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere still on board. The smugglers rely on the emergency services of the destination country to seize and rescue the vessel before it makes landfall.

But that assumption can be lethal for the boat's human cargo. This spring, the continued turmoil in many regions of Africa, combined with the prospect of a better life in Europe, have sparked a wave of deaths.

The cost in human life is staggering. In just the past week, the International Organization for Migration says it received reports of 400 migrant deaths in a boat that capsized on April 14 south of Malta, with 50 more deaths reported on April 17. Those reports follow news of an estimated 770 lives lost off the coast of Libya over the weekend.

The Geneva-based group estimates the death toll on the Mediterranean so far this year is more than 1,700 migrants. The figure is believed to be pacing well above last year's numbers.

Thousands more have been saved but face a return to their home countries.

Italy's proximity to Africa has made it a favored smuggling route. Italian ships recently rescued some 10,000 migrants in a single week, according to the IOM, bringing the total number of migrants reaching Italian shores to more than 21,000 so far this year. In 2013, more than 26,000 migrants arrived through April 30, the IOM said, citing the Italian Ministry of Interior figures.

Though northern African ports are popular transit points, millions of refugees are making their way from trouble spots across the continent, according to data collected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many more are displaced in their home country, unable to flee or seek asylum abroad.

Australian PM urges Europe to turn away migrant boats
Australian PM urges Europe to turn away migrant boats   

Though European leaders have vowed to take steps to stem the flow, politically popular restrictions on immigration across Europe mean there will likely continue to be many more people seeking entry than quotas will allow.

Read MoreMigrants take long road to EU gateway Hungary

That means policymakers will have to turn to more complex efforts—such as quelling civil unrest or creating better economic opportunities—in refugees' home countries, said Vintiadis

"It's clear that economic development would be the prime mover—which takes time," she said. "But the reason there is this sense of emergency is that, with the number of people dying, which is so horrifying ... maybe we don't have time."