Passport

Fewer Migrants Are Braving the Mediterranean, But More Than Ever Are Dying At Sea

Despite a dramatic decrease in sea crossings, migrants who do try are now much more likely to die.

SIKAMINIAS, GREECE - OCTOBER 16:  A raft arrives onto the island of Lesbos on October 16, 2015 in Sikaminias, Greece. Dozens of rafts and boats are still making the journey daily as thousands flee conflict in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. More than 500,000 migrants have entered Europe so far this year. Of that number four-fifths of have paid to be smuggled by sea to Greece from Turkey, the main transit route into the EU. Nearly all of those entering Greece on a boat from Turkey are from the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SIKAMINIAS, GREECE - OCTOBER 16: A raft arrives onto the island of Lesbos on October 16, 2015 in Sikaminias, Greece. Dozens of rafts and boats are still making the journey daily as thousands flee conflict in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. More than 500,000 migrants have entered Europe so far this year. Of that number four-fifths of have paid to be smuggled by sea to Greece from Turkey, the main transit route into the EU. Nearly all of those entering Greece on a boat from Turkey are from the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Earlier this year, it briefly seemed that a renewed crackdown on human smuggling operations in the Mediterranean would save the lives of asylum-seekers braving the treacherous route to Europe.

Last year, more than a million people crossed the Mediterranean, with many coming from Libya and headed toward Italy. And 3,771 never made it to shore, dying or going missing as their insecure wooden boats or rubber dinghies capsized in rough waters.

This year only 327,800 people made the same trip. But despite the tiny fraction of arrivals as compared to last year, nearly the same number have died in the past 10 months as did in all of 2016.

On Tuesday, the United Nations refugee office announced that 3,740 people have already been killed in the Mediterranean this year, setting the stage for 2016 to be the deadliest on record for migrant deaths at sea. For very 269 people who arrived safely in Europe by way of the Mediterranean last year, one died en route. This year, the likelihood has dramatically increased: Between January and October, one in every 88 asylum-seekers was killed before they made it to shore.

UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler blamed the surge in deaths on a number of factors, including the increased use of the North Africa-to-Italy route, which is known to have rougher conditions, and the use of “flimsy inflatable rafts that often do not last the journey.”

“Several incidents seem to be connected with travel during bad weather,” he said at a briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. “And the tactics of smugglers are switching too, with several occasions when there have been mass embarkations of thousands of people at a time.”

Those tactics may have shifted as smugglers try to avoid getting caught, Spindler said. But regardless of the reason, having thousands of migrants at sea at the same time makes rescue missions even harder than before, he added.

Last weekend, for example, thousands of migrants were rescued during one operation in the Mediterranean. But another 14 were confirmed dead, and others went missing.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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