More than 2,500 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2016
More than 2,500 people have died trying to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2016, the UN said Tuesday, a sharp jump from the same period last year.
At the same time some 204,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to the continent since January, a figure that has also climbed acutely. In the past week alone, at least 880 people have died in a series of shipwrecks, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said, citing information from survivors who made it to Italy.
“I emphasise that that figure is a conservative estimate,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told reporters.
A number of small children reportedly drowned in the series of boat accidents over the past week, as thousands continue to attempt the sea crossing to Europe in rickety vessels from the Middle East and Africa. UNHCR described desperate situations at the weekend, with 47 people still missing after one incident where a raft carrying 125 people from Libya deflated.
Spindler warned that “2016 is proving to be particularly deadly,” saying that during the first five months of 2015, the death toll stood at 1,855, while the number during the same period in 2014 was 57.
The number of arrivals is more than double the nearly 92,000 who landed on the continent’s shores during the first five months of 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration, although more than one million made the trip by the end of last year.
Three quarters of those who have arrived in Europe so far in 2016 landed in Greece before the end of March — most of them refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.
But arrivals to Greece have fallen sharply since the EU entered a controversial deal on March 20 with key transit country Turkey to stem the flow of migrants.
Meanwhile, 46,714 people have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year, around the same number as during the first five months of 2015, UNHCR said.
Nearly all of those travelling on this route are from sub-Saharan Africa, especially Nigeria and Gambia, as well as Somalia and Eritrea.
Counting all routes across the Mediterranean, Spindler said the odds of dying while trying to cross to Europe was now one in 81.
The route between Libya and Italy, which is far longer than the one between Turkey and Greece, has proven particularly deadly, with 2,119 of all deaths registered this year along that route.
Spindler warned that the risk of dying on that route was now one in 23.
The boats taking this route tend to be far more crowded, he explained, often carrying 600 or more passengers and sometimes being towed by larger fishing boats, which Spindler said was “very dangerous.” “Smugglers are getting more ruthless,” he warned.
He said there was suspicion that the recent increase in numbers attempting to cross the Mediterranean could be linked to “efforts by smugglers to maximise income before the start of the holy month of Ramadan“, which begins next week.
Also on Tuesday Italian prosecutors announced the arrest of 16 alleged traffickers who are accused of helping nearly 900 migrants make the journey from Libya to Italy. The suspects — 11 of whom were Moroccan — were on board a boat that arrived Saturday in Sicily after being rescued two days earlier off the coast of Libya.