The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has revealed that 2016 has become the deadliest year on record for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
At the same time as smugglers have started to cram more people onto ever flimsier boats, at least 3,800 migrants have perished attempting to reach Europe this year already, compared with 2015’s total of 3,771 deaths. This is despite a significant drop in the total number of crossings.
UNHCR blamed the record death toll on the escalating greed of human traffickers, a run of particularly bad weather, and the fact that more migrants are attempting to reach Europe via the hazardous Libya to Italy route. Scores of refugees and economic migrants are drowning every week due to the boats they are shepherded onto by people smugglers sinking or capsizing once out at sea, the agency said.
“People smugglers are today often using lower-quality vessels – flimsy inflatable rafts that often do not last the journey,” UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler commented.
“Several incidents seem to be connected with travel during bad weather. And the tactics of smugglers are switching too, with several occasions when there have been mass embarkations of thousands of people at a time.
“This may be to do with the shifting smuggler business model or geared towards lowering detection risks, but it also makes the work of rescuers harder.”
On the route from Libya to Italy, one migrant dies attempting to make the crossing for every 47 who arrive safely. On the shorter route from Turkey to Greece, one in every 88 migrants drown while trying to make it across the Mediterranean. Fewer migrants are taking the latter route after Turkey agreed to do more to stop the crossings in exchange for billions of euros in aid.
The UNHCR’s grim figures were released as medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) revealed it pulled the bodies of 25 migrants from an inflatable dinghy not far off the coast of Libya on Wednesday. After plucking around 107 people from the stricken vessel, rescuers found the victims, who are thought to have died from fuel inhalation, at the bottom of the boat.
In July, Europol warned that people smuggling in Europe had reached record levels. The agency revealed that it had close to 50,000 people smugglers on its database, having added an additional 7,000 suspects in the first six months of 2016 alone. Europol Director Rob Wainwright said 6,400 new people smuggling suspects were identified by the agency in 2014, rising to 10,000 last year. The law enforcement organisation estimates that around one million migrants entered the EU in 2015, with 90% of them paying as much as €6,000 to smugglers.