GENEVA - U.N. agencies are reporting a sharp rise in deaths across the Central Mediterranean among refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and economic hardship in their home countries.
So far this year, say U.N. agencies, at least 500 people have lost their lives at sea trying to reach Europe via the dangerous Central Mediterranean route.
This is compared to 150 sea fatalities in the same period last year.
An estimated 130 people died in a shipwreck off the Libyan coast last month. A report by the International Organization for Migration blamed their deaths on the failure of maritime rescue vessels to respond to their calls of distress.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, Carlotta Sami, says fortunately the distress calls of some 1,500 others who recently made this perilous journey were heeded. She says more than 1,000 disembarked in the port of Trapani in Sicily on May 1 following rescue by the Italian Coast Guard.
She says she was present to watch more than 450 other refugees and migrants rescued by the NGO vessel Sea Watch come ashore on Tuesday. Most of the arrivals, she says, departed from Libya onboard flimsy, unseaworthy vessels and made repeated distress calls.
“We have noticed a high presence of minors, many of whom are unaccompanied," she said. "The majority of arrivals originate from Mali and the Sahel/West Africa area, Eritrea and North Africa. Many of the people making the sea crossing come from refugee producing countries.”
Sami says many are fleeing from war and conflict, like in the Africa’s Sahel region. Many others are fleeing persecution and being trafficked and sold like commodities. She says the latest disembarkations in Italy bring the number of sea arrivals this year to more than 10,400. This, she notes is more than a 170 percent increase compared to the same period in 2020.
She says the UNHCR, and partners are working with the government of Italy at disembarkation points to help identify the needs of new arrivals and to support the reception system for asylum seekers.
“We gather in the past few days several testimonies also from minors that are speaking of imprisonment and brutalities with no respect for human rights in Libya, while also survivors are suffering mental health issues," she said.
The UNHCR is urging the international community to strengthen protections for migrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean and to provide safe alternatives to these dangerous journeys.
The agency is calling on states to expand legal pathways such as humanitarian corridors, evacuations, resettlement, and family reunification.