New deals and pledges fail to prevent record high migrant deaths

A rubber boat carrying around 50 migrants and refugees arrives from Bodrum in Turkey to the Greek island of Kos in the early hours of the morning. (Credit: Christopher Jahn/IFRC/flickr)

The number of people who died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year already surpassed the total for 2015. And there are still two months left in 2016.

At least 3,800 migrants and refugees died trying to reach Europe this year, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). That is more than the 3,771 deaths reported in 2015, an increase from the previous year. U.N. spokesperson William Spindler announced the new record Wednesday morning.

The information comes out the same day Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported finding 25 bodies at the bottom of a rescued rubber boat on Tuesday. They likely died from fuel inhalation. It took the MSF team hours to recover the bodies from the mixture of sea water and fuel, due to health concerns.

“This is a tragedy, but we can’t say that today is an exceptional day at sea,” said Stefano Argenziano, manager of migration operations for Doctors Without Borders, in a statement. “The past weeks have been horrific, with our rescue teams and other boats involved in almost continuous rescues and far too many men, women and children dying.”

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The new U.N. statistics back up his sentiment. Mediterranean crossings have fallen significantly. More than 1 million people made the dangerous journey last year. Only 327,800 people made the attempt this year, meaning the total will fall by more than half.

Efforts to prevent people from crossing are working. The problem is that they may be working too well. More people are choosing the dangerous North Africa to Italy route after Greece stopped accepting people who arrived illegally by boat. There is also a notable spike in smugglers traveling with more people at a time. Small and flimsy vessels have trouble making the trip, made harder by an increase in bad weather.

Taken together there is a big problem: Fewer people are crossing the Mediterranean for Europe. More people are dying making the journey.

“Sea rescue operations are becoming a race through a maritime graveyard, and our rescue teams are overwhelmed by a policy-made crisis where we feel powerless to stop the loss of life,” said Argenziano. “How many tragedies like this do we need before EU leaders change their misplaced priority of deterrence and provide safe alternatives to the sea?”

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The much-debated deal between the European Union and Turkey virtually shut off the popular route to Greece. It aimed to reduce the burden of arrivals on Greece and its islands, as well as neighboring countries, where migrants and refugees traveled after being allowed to enter Europe. Critics at the time worried that it forced people to consider more dangerous means.

Wednesday’s announcement proves the concerns were warranted. UNHCR said countries need to make policy changes that establish “functioning asylum systems.” European countries have taken wide-ranging stands on the migrant crisis, from closing down borders to accepting hundreds of thousands of people.

Equally important are the sea rescue operations. The nongovernmental organizations and coast guard units, namely those of Greece and Italy, are vital. Such efforts save lives, both UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders stressed.

“The high death rate is also a reminder of the importance of continuing and robust search and rescue capacities – without which the fatality rates would almost certainly be higher. UNHCR thanks those governments and private entities who on a daily basis, and often in difficult conditions, contribute to the important work of saving lives,” Spindler said in a statement.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.