GENEVA - The International Organization for Migration reports a surge in the number of migrant deaths on the Mediterranean Sea’s central route linking Libya to Italy in the first two months of the year.
The IOM estimates 326 migrants and refugees have died this year while transiting by sea from Libya to Italy, compared to just 97 fatalities during the same period last year.
While the numbers are alarming, IOM spokesman Joel Millman said they do not reflect the full scope of the sea tragedies as many bodies are never recovered and an unknown number of victims remain missing.
He said most of the victims are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. However, he told VOA not everyone making the perilous sea journey in smugglers' boats is a migrant who intended to go to Europe.
“There is a thriving business in kidnapping right now in Libya," said Millman, "where people are being taken off the street, held to paid ransom and forced into these boats just because the ransom takers are done with them and they do not want to try to pick them up again and go through the long process of trying to ring a few hundred euros out of a family somewhere thousands of miles to the south.”
Millman said that is not the only horrendous crime being perpetrated against the defenseless people. He said human smugglers have been employing another, potentially lethal tactic — stealing engines from the boats and leaving the vessels drifting in the water with people aboard.
“They do not know whether this is the Mafia that is cracking down on competition, that is not paying and punishing them by taking the engine, or weather — and it could be a mixture of both," he said. "Parts and vessels are so hard to come by now, with the amount of migrants that are coming through, that the smugglers just feel that they need to recover the expensive parts of their operation, the components as quickly as they can.”
Millman said passengers are promised that a rescue ship is on its way. He said in many cases that has happened, but there have been other instances where the migrants have been left adrift without any help on the horizon.