Migrants at the gates, lives in the balance along the shores of Europe

On Sunday, nearly 850 immigrants from Libya are believed to have died after their boats reportedly capsized in the Mediterranean Sea en route to Italy, according to an estimate by the United Nations. The rising death toll of immigrants desperately seeking refuge from conflicts in their home countries has forced the European Union to call emergency talks to move more swiftly in deciding how best to a resolve the immigration crisis.

If the death toll from the recent capsizing is accurate, it will mean that nearly 1,500 immigrants have died this year alone while trying to flee their home countries for European shores.

Panos Pictures photographer Carlos Spottorno has been documenting incoming immigrants and their experience along various European coastal cities for years. “They leave their home countries because poverty, war and hunger have made their lives intolerable, and they’re determined to find a better life for themselves, and maybe their families back home,”  he describes about his series via Panos Pictures. “Some of them travel for years, being passed from one trafficker to the other at the mercy of unscrupulous criminals who see them as a commodity and play on their desperation.”

Spottorno’s riveting series “At the Gates of Europe,” which won the Short Film Award for this year’s World Press Photo, explores the daily life of immigrants from Nigeria, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Pakistan who have boarded overcrowded boats for Europe and are now strewn across villages near Spain’s African frontiers at Melilla and Ceuta, and the Bulgarian refugee camp Harmali.

Melilla is a small Spanish city on the North Africa coast, bordered by Morocco. It is protected by a fence that surrounds it. Many migrants live in an enclave just above the city, often for months or years at a time, awaiting an opportunity to scale the fence and seek asylum inside the city’s walls.

Migrants also live in the Sicilian town of Mineo, an old residential compound originally built for the families of U.S. military personnel. In 2011, it was adapted to shelter about 2,000 migrants, yet it now houses more than 4,000 people from African and Asian countries awaiting a fate of either being accepted into Europe or deported to their countries or origin.

[Related: The experience of African migrant workers in Italy]

Galleries: [Calls for action in Europe after migrant disaster in Mediterranean Sea]