A coast guard boat approaches the German humanitarian group's rescue boat Sea Watch 3, to deliver food and blankets for the cold, off the coast of Syracuse, Italy, Jan. 27, 2019.
A coast guard boat approaches the German humanitarian group's rescue boat Sea Watch 3, to deliver food and blankets for the cold, off the coast of Syracuse, Italy, Jan. 27, 2019.

GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency says there was an alarming increase in the number of refugees and migrants who lost their lives last year while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. 

Last year, the U.N. refugee agency says, six people died on average every day while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

It estimates 2,275 people died or disappeared crossing the Mediterranean in 2018, despite a big drop in the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe.  Last year, 139,300 people arrived, the lowest number in five years.

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In 2017, on routes from Libya to Europe, the UNHCR found one person died for every 38 people who went to sea.  That number rose sharply last year to one death for every 14 who arrived in Europe.

UNHCR spokeswoman Liz Throssell tells VOA the spike in refugee and migrant deaths is largely due to major cuts in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

“That really has resulted in the Mediterranean being the world’s deadliest sea crossing," said Throssell. "Non-governmental organizations have been carrying out sea rescues, but during the course of 2018, their ability to operate has been curtailed.  So, what we are seeing is there is a lack of search and rescue.  People setting off desperately and the result is people are drowning at sea.” 

Some of the 17 people rescued in the Mediterranean
Some of the 17 people rescued in the Mediterranean Sea wait aboard the German rescue ship Sea-Eye afloat off Malta, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.

Throssell says preventing search and rescue operations will not deter people who are fleeing persecution or extreme poverty from risking their lives on the perilous sea journey.  

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The UNHCR is calling for a strong regional and collaborative approach to protect refugees and help save lives at sea.  It says that European countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea; countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece, should not be solely responsible for caring for the refugees and migrants that come ashore.

The agency says this is a burden that should be shared among all European countries.