GENEVA - The U.N. migration agency has measured an impressive drop in the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea this year, compared to the same period the two previous years.
Through mid-April of this year, data shows 18,575 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The International Organization for Migration says that is less than half of last year's pace.
More impressive is the steep decline this year, to nine percent, of the number of arrivals in Europe from 2016, which exceeded 200,000.
IOM spokesman Joel Millman says much of the drop can be explained by changes in the central Mediterranean route linking North Africa to Italy. He says it is likely the repatriation of some 25,000 African migrants from Libya as well as stepped up activity by the Libyan coast guard have reduced the number of people crossing to Italy.
"Return to shore by coast guard is now almost 3,500 this year — 3,479," said Millman. "This, we think, contributes to the same repatriation flights. We think that people have endured, sometime, months of onerous conditions in unofficial detention centers or for better …who do get rescued by the coast guard …Maybe they are more susceptible to greater repatriations. So, maybe those two things are happening in tandem. But, they have brought the numbers down considerably."
Millman says there also is good news regarding fatalities. He says 53 deaths in the Mediterranean have been recorded in April this year compared to 1,222 deaths during the same period in April three years ago.
While 53 deaths is tragic, he says this relatively low number of sea fatalities at the start of what is usually a very busy and deadly migration season is worth noting.
He says the IOM hopes this is the start of a virtuous cycle and that this problem finally will disappear.