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Illegal Mediterranean Sea Crossings Spike Refugee Death Toll

  • Lisa Schlein

Migrants are aboard a boat after being rescued overnight by the Italian Navy, Aug.18, 2014.

Migrants are aboard a boat after being rescued overnight by the Italian Navy, Aug.18, 2014.

The U.N. refugee agency reports that more than 300 migrants lost their lives when their boats capsized in the Mediterranean Sea last weekend. The UNHCR says escalating conflicts are driving more and more people to embark on desperate journeys to reach Europe.

The U.N. refugee agency reports the largest incident occurred Friday when a boat reportedly carrying at least 270 people overturned in waters east of Tripoli, the capital of Libya. It says 19 people survived, the Libyan coast guard has recovered 100 bodies, and the rest are feared drowned.

This tragedy was followed by two others on Saturday and Sunday when overcrowded, rickety smugglers' boats capsized in Libyan waters.

Hundreds of people were rescued by the Italian coast guard and Navy and a nearby merchant ship. Unfortunately, scores remain missing and are feared dead.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Libya is the main departure country for refugees and other migrants desperate to escape to Europe.

“What we are noting what is different is that the worsening security situation there is fostering the growth of ruthless smuggling operations. You see that by forcing all these people on these unseaworthy boats,” said Fleming.

The International Organization for Migration reports more than 100,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea this year. This is three times the number of migrants who reached Italy from North Africa in 2013.

IOM spokesman Chris Lom said these migrants come from all across Africa and the Middle East.

“These are people who are fleeing war, persecution, totalitarian regimes. Our colleagues in Italy are telling us that now there have Yazidis from Iraq arriving," said Lom. "They also have Gazans arriving. And, these are people who are fleeing for their lives. The two largest countries of origin for these refugees arriving in Italy are Eritrea and Syria.”

Lom said more than 25,000 Eritreans and more than 16,000 Syrians have arrived in Italy in the first seven months of the year. He says other nationalities include Malians, Nigerians, Gambians, and Somalis.

The IOM spokesman said smuggling gangs are making enormous profits off the situation, charging desperate people thousands of dollars to attempt the crossing on unsafe vessels. The UNHCR and IOM say urgent action is needed, including finding legal alternatives to these dangerous journeys.