Mediterranean migrant death toll soars

With two months still to go, deaths of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean so far this year have hit a record high, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Expressing alarm at the situation, UNHCR reported that 3,740 lives had been lost so far in 2016, just short of the 3,771 reported for the whole of 2015. "This is the worst we have ever seen," UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told a press briefing in Geneva. "From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiralled to one in 88." Spindler said the high loss of life takes place despite a large overall fall this year in the number of people seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Last year at least 1,015,078 people made the crossing. This year so far, crossings stand at 327,800.

"Between Libya and Italy the likelihood of dying is even higher, at one death for every 47 arrivals," he added, referring to what is called the Central Mediterranean route. The causes of the increase are multiple: about half those who have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year have travelled from North Africa to Italy—a more perilous route. "People smugglers are today often using lower-quality vessels—flimsy inflatable rafts that often do not last the journey. Several incidents seem to be connected with travel during bad weather."

He added that the tactics of smugglers are switching, with "mass embarkations of thousands of people" at a time. He said this pointed to a "shifting smuggler business model…geared towards lowering detection risks. "This 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, Oct. 25)