Nearly 2,000 people fleeing Africa and the Middle East have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, most of them in the past three months as they tried to reach Europe from Libya, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday (26 August).
“In all, we believe that 1,889 people have perished this year while making such journeys, 1,600 of them since the start of June,” a spokeswoman for the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) Melissa Fleming told a news briefing.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Italian navy said it had rescued 364 would-be migrants in a two-day effort after their crowded fishing boat sank off Libya. The bodies of 24 who had drowned were recovered.
Violent political turmoil in Libya, a country which has long been a major departure point for people trying to reach Europe by sea, has exacerbated the problem, the Geneva-based agency said.
Libya’s worsening security situation, “has fostered the growth of people-smuggling operations, but also prompted refugees and migrants living there to decide to risk the sea rather than stay in a conflict zone,” the UNHCR said.
The UNHCR death toll includes more than 300 people who died in three separate incidents since Friday when boats capsized off the Libyan coast, but a total of 124,380 boat people, largely fleeing war, violence and persecution, according to the agency, have landed in Europe since January. Many after being rescued by an Italian navy and coast guard operation.
Italy now hosts more than 108,000 boat people, far more than any country in the region. Greece has nearly 15,000 either rescued or picked up on its sea borders, while some 1,800 are in Spain and over 300 in Malta.
The figures show a strong surge in migrant traffic and deaths over the last three years. While some 1,500 died in 2011, in 2012 that number fell to 500, and last year it was just over 600 – all three for the full 12 months.
Migrants who reached Europe by sea were around 60,000 in 2013, the UN agency estimated.
Greece has already made it a point to push for a single asylum system and more coordinated management of illegal migration flows into Europe during its six-month EU presidency.
In recent months, hundreds of people have died trying to reach European shores. Last October, 356 African immigrants drowned when their boat capsized shortly before reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa, near Sicily.
Experts say the issue is not only humanitarian. It is also an economic and political issue.