GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency is voicing concern at the rising death toll among refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, especially along the route from Libya to Italy.
More than 200,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in the first six months of this year. The U.N. refugee agency reports some 2,510 lives have been lost so far compared to 1,825 in the same period last year, making this a particularly deadly year.
While nearly two-thirds have reached Europe traveling from Turkey to Greece, the UNHCR says the North Africa-Italy route is dramatically more dangerous. It says the vast majority—more than 2,100 people—have died along this route this year.
This past week has been particularly deadly. A series of shipwrecks on the Mediterranean reportedly have claimed at least 880 lives. The UNHCR considers this estimate to be conservative.
UNHCR spokesman, William Spindler, says boats leaving from Libya are terribly overcrowded, putting peoples’ lives at risk. He says smugglers are reportedly increasing the number of people on board ship to maximize income before the start of the holy month of Ramadan in the coming week.
“Smugglers are packing people on boats that are barely seaworthy and that in many cases are not meant to make the crossing. So, what happens is that as soon as they depart from the shore, they call for rescue and then the rescue services come and rescue them…In fact, it is a race against time to get there before these boat sink. On some occasions, they get there too late.”
Passengers are believed to be paying smugglers up to $2,000 to travel from Libya to Italy. The UNHCR says Nigerians and Gambians constitute the main nationalities on this route, although increasingly more are coming from Somalia and Eritrea.
It says not many Syrians, Afghans or Iraqis are shifting from the Turkey-Greece route to the Central Mediterranean one from North Africa to Italy.