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After a lull in crossings, a sudden spike in migrant deaths on the Mediterranean

A cruise ship rescues refugees fleeing from Syria from a stranded small boat off the southwestern coast of the east Mediterranean island. (AP Photo/Haris Milonas)

Humanitarian groups are issuing alerts after as many as 1,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe over a three-day period. The news comes just one week after the International Organization for Migration declared that the number of migrant deaths at sea was on the decline. All of a sudden the more than 2,500 deaths this year are on pace to surpass the more than 3,700 recorded deaths in 2015.

It marks an end to a period of declining numbers of people traveling by sea that came after a deal between the European Union and Turkey shut down Greece as a point-of-entry for asylum seekers, and it could be a harbinger of things to come. More than 13,000 people were rescued in the Mediterranean over the same week, most traveling from northern Africa to Italy.

Summer is usually a time when attempts to cross the Mediterranean increase. Water is generally calmer, making passage safer. Unfortunately, refugees and migrants are stuffed into vessels that are oftentimes barely seaworthy and nearly always overcrowded.

The more than 4,000 people rescued and 550 deaths last Thursday alone show just how sharply the number of crossings can increase and the risk people take in making the journey. The U.N.’s refugee agency (UHNCR) said it does not see evidence that a significant number of Syrians, Afghans or Iraqis have been diverted from the Turkey-Greece route to the Libya-Italy one. But there is concern that may change following the shutdown of the former.

(Credit: IOM)

(Credit: IOM)

“Thus far 2016 is proving to be particularly deadly,” said UNHCR spokesman William Spindler, at a press briefing today. “On a Mediterranean-wide basis, the odds of being among the dead are currently one in 81. This highlights the importance of rescue operations as part of the response to the movement of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean and the need for real, safer alternatives for people needing international protection.”

UNHCR said there have been 2,510 deaths so far in 2016, compared to the 1,855 that occurred in the same period last year. Both are far more than the 57 deaths in the first five months of 2014. Just one week ago, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) released updated numbers showing that the pace of refugee and migrant deaths in 2016 was lower than 2015. The decline was attributed to possible improvements made in managing refugee flows and rescuing people at sea.

“Obviously now that the Turkey-Greece route appears suspended for the time being, we hope that this is the beginning of a sound management policy of refugees and refugees who wish to make the crossing and don’t take these enormous risks,” said IOM spokesman Joel Millman at a press briefing.

In addition to improved weather conditions, the IOM says the sudden surge in people crossing over the past week is due to the increased use of bigger wooden boats. Roughly 700 people can fit onto a wooden boat, compared to the 100 to 120 people who are packed onto rubber boats. Those wooden boats were the type of vessels that suffered some of the most significant accidents last week.

Refugees and migrants disembark a Spanish coast guard vessel at the port of Palermo, Sicily, Italy. (Credit: UNICEF/UN019999/Gilbertson VII Photo)

Refugees and migrants disembark a Spanish coast guard vessel at the port of Palermo, Sicily, Italy. (Credit: UNICEF/UN019999/Gilbertson VII Photo)

“There were many women and boys in the hold. We were taking on water, but we had a pump that helped us to push the water out,” Stefanos, a young Eritrean who survived his boat sinking, told IOM interviewers. “When the pump ran out of fuel, we asked for more fuel to the captain of the first boat, who said no. At this point there was nothing left to do: the water was everywhere and we slowly started to sink. There were between about 35 women and 40 children next to me. They all died.”

Other survivors told stories of having their cell phones taken and being locked into the hull of the boat. They traveled for a day and a half without access to food and water before being rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. And there were no bathroom facilities. One Iraqi woman said she and her infant son were held in a space with four other people that was no bigger than a telephone booth.

“The rescue operations are indispensable and must continue – we commend all those involved in these lifesaving efforts. But these operations are not in and of themselves a solution. We must come together to change irregular, dangerous and costly migration to migration that is legal, safe and orderly,” said Federico Soda, director of the IOM coordination office for the Mediterranean, in a release.


About Author

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]