The death rate for migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe has skyrocketed due to a crackdown on human traffickers, according to a U.N. report published Tuesday.
As a result, the perilous journey to Europe has become “deadlier than ever” for desperate migrants, the report’s authors warn.
While the overall number of undocumented arrivals into Europe has decreased sharply this year, the rate of deaths on the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy has drastically increased. One in 18 people who attempted the crossing between January and July this year drowned — compared with one in 42 who perished during the same period in 2017.
But because the overall number of people making the journey dropped significantly over the same period, from 95,200 in the first seven months of 2017 to just 18,500 this year, the total number of deaths is down, from 2,276 to 1,095.
More than 1,600 people have died while attempting to reach Europe via all major sea or land routes so far in 2018.
“This report once again confirms the Mediterranean as one of the world’s deadliest sea crossings,” said the U.N. Refugee Agency’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 UNHCR argues that a crackdown on the business model of human traffickers operating out of Libya, and increased obstacles for charity rescue vessels, have led to the greater rate of fatalities.
UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley told VICE News that the number of NGO-operated search and rescue vessels operating off the Libyan coast had dropped from eight last year to two this year, as a result of legal and logistical restrictions that hampered their activities. This included the decision by Italy’s new government to close its ports to vessels carrying rescued migrants, creating fraught standoffs at sea.
European Union-backed efforts to boost the capacity of the Libyan coast guard, which was now the main actor patrolling that country’s coastline, had also contributed to a more dangerous environment by pushing the human traffickers to take greater risks, he said.
“The greater capacity of the Libyan coastguard means smugglers are resorting to more dangerous routes to evade detection,” he said. “Their business model is being threatened — one way to cut costs is to use more flimsy and unseaworthy boats, or they cram more people on to those boats.”
Along the Central Mediterranean route, there have been ten incidents so far this year in which 50 or more people died, most after departing from Libya. Seven of these incidents have occurred since June.
The U.N. has called for a regional approach for the rescue and disembarkation of people in distress in the Mediterranean, with a focus on saving lives.
But the EU, whose members are deeply divided on the issue of migration, has rejected any suggestion that its policies are to blame for the increased death rate. European Commission spokeswoman Tove Ernst said in response to the report that the bloc had made saving lives “our top priority and this is what we have been working relentlessly to do.”
“It’s not the EU’s policy that is causing these tragedies. It is the cruel and dangerous business model used by traffickers and smugglers who are exploiting human misery and putting people’s lives at risk,” she said.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s powerful Interior Minister and leader of the far-right Lega party, has claimed that the hardline approach under his government is saving lives by reducing the overall flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, and therefore the total number of deaths.
Cover image: Refugees from Libya are desperate to reach the Italian coast on a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea, 27 January 2018. (Laurin Schmid/SOS Mediterranee/picture alliance via Getty Images)