Mediterranean refugee numbers drop but crossing is deadlier: UN

More than 1,600 people have died or gone missing while attempting to reach Europe so far this year, UNCHR’s new Desperate Journeys report shows. 

The report released on Monday reveals that while the number of crossings has fallen, the deaths have risen, making the voyage more deadly in percentage terms for those who venture across.

According to the report, people smugglers are taking greaters risks in the journey due to increased surveillance.

A total of 2,276 people died last year while trying to cross, this represented one death for every 42 arrivals.

This year, it is 1,095 deaths, or one out of every 18 arrivals. In June alone, the proportion hit one death for every seven arrivals. About 500 people have gone missing. 

“This report once again confirms the Mediterranean as one of the world’s deadliest sea crossings,” said UNHCR’s Director of the Bureau for Europe, Pascale Moreau.

“With the number of people arriving on European shores falling, this is no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives,” she added.

People travelling to Europe continue to do so for different reasons.

Some continue to flee armed conflict and human rights violations, while others seek international protection on account of religious, ethnic or political persecution or to escape different forms of sexual or gender-based violence, the report revealed.

On the Central Mediterranean route so far this year, there have been 10 separate incidents in which 50 or more people died – most after departing from Libya.

“The reason the traffic has become more deadly is that the traffickers are taking more risk, because there is more surveillance exercised by the Libyan coast guards,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean.

Seven of those incidents have been since June alone, UNHCR said.

“This is not new, we have highlighted this for a while now,” Maria Jesus Vega a spokesperson from UNCHR in Spain told Al Jazeera.

“We need a regional response, this not an exclusive problem from those countries that are in the outer border, such as Italy, Greece or Spain.”

And while people risk their lives in the journey, this is not the only time they are at risk. 

“People aiming to reach to Europe risk their lives multiple times,” Vega said. 

“They risk their lives when they try to flee conflict in their countries, when they need to cross the borders with no authorisation, and when they fall in the hands of traffickers and mafias that promise to take them,” she explained.

Monetising tragedy

Libyan authorities intercepted or rescued 18,400 people between August last year and July this year – a 38-percent increase from the same period of 2016 and 2017.

Arrivals by sea from Libya to Europe plummeted 82 percent in those comparable periods, to 30,800 in the more recent one.

UNHCR says a growing worry these days is deaths on land by people trying to get to Libya in the first place, or getting stuck in squalid, overcrowded detention centres.

Many are returned there after failing to cross by sea to Europe.

The problems after disembarkation (is that) those people are sent back to detention centres, and many disappear,” Cochetel said.

“Many are sold to militias, and to traffickers, and people employing them without paying them.”

He said the drop in departures means that traffickers attempt to “monetise their investment, which means they have to exploit more people.”

“That results in more cases of slavery, forced labour, prostitution of those people – because they (smugglers) want to make money off those people.” 

And while this route is deadly, this is not the only one that raises a red alert.

“The route of Morocco or Algeria to Spain has also shown an increase in the death rate,” Vega said.

“So far this year more than 300 people have died.”

“Last year, we had a total of 200 deaths, this is very worrisome, and a lot of this has to do with the mafias that are operating the route, they are taking greater risks every day,” she added.

Spain is the third busiest point of arrival for all refugees and migrants entering Europe by sea, behind Italy and Greece, accounting for 23 percent of all such arrivals to the EU.

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