The proportion of people who are dying at sea trying to reach Europe has greatly increased, according to a new UNHCR report.
Despite lower numbers of refugees and migrants crossing the sea than in 2017, the UNHCR reported one death for every 18 people that arrived via the Central Mediterranean route in Europe from January-July 2018.
For the same period in 2017, there were 2,276 deaths, which amounts to one fatality for every 42 arrivals.
“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.”
“The risks involved for refugees and migrants travelling to Europe remain very high,” the report said.
In the first seven months of 2018, over 1,500 refugees and migrants are believed to have died at sea, most of them while attempting to cross the sea from Libya.
Increased death rate
A major factor that contributed to the increased death rate was the decreased search and rescue capacity off the Libyan coast in 2018 compared to the same period last year.
In the first seven months of 2017, NGOs were the primary actors intervening off the Libyan coast, rescuing almost 39,000 refugees and migrants.
In 2018, the number of NGO boats operating off the coast on a consistent basis has been reduced to two, so there are fewer actors to detect and rescue in the area.
“The Libyan Coast Guard has become the primary actor intervening off the Libyan coast, including sometimes over 70 miles (112 km) from the shore, with most interventions conducted by two patrol vessels,” claimed the report.
As a result of rescues occurring further out to sea, migrants and refugees are forced to spend longer on “overcrowded and unsafe” boats before they are rescued and traffickers are taking more risks due to the Libyan Coast Guard’s increased surveillance.
The sea route from North Africa to Spain also saw a 50% increase in deaths since last year, with 200 dying in the whole of 2017 — 300 people have died so far in 2018. This April over 1,200 reached Spain by sea and the death rate was one in 14.
Less people making the ‘desperate journey’
The report puts the lower numbers of migrants crossing the sea than in 2017 down to several measures:
- Further support for Libyan authorities to prevent sea crossings to Europe.
- Further restrictions on the work of NGOs involved in search and rescue operations.
- Limited access to Italian ports for refugees and migrants rescued at sea since June.
- According to the report, action by Italy has also lead to a “far higher death rate”.
Matteo Salvini, the populist interior minister of Italy, said his country would “no longer be Europe’s refugee camp”, with the country involved in diplomatic feuds when they refused to allow migrant rescue ships to dock in Italian ports unless other EU states agreed to take in those onboard.
What can be done?
The UNHCR called on Europe to increase access to safe and legal pathways for refugees, including by increasing resettlement places and removing obstacles to family reunification – helping to provide alternatives to potentially deadly journeys.