Indications are that 880 people appear to have died over the past week as vessels capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, bringing the total fatalities along the dangerous crossing route to 2 510 so far this year, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a comprehensive and collective response to large movements of refugees and migrants.
According to a statement issued by his spokesperson, Ban is “deeply saddened” that in the last few days, hundreds of men, women, and children have died in the Mediterranean Sea. The UN chief expressed his deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who perished.
“While the Secretary-General commends the brave efforts of the joint Italian and European search and rescue operations, he calls on concerned Governments and organisations to redouble their efforts to save those at risk at sea and to counter the migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas,” the statement continued.
At the global level, Ban called for a comprehensive and collective response to large movements of refugees and migrants, including expanded legal pathways.
“The September 19 high-level meeting at the United Nations on this issue is a unique opportunity to agree on such a framework,” the statement said, adding it will also be an opportunity to demonstrate greater solidarity and shared responsibility with countries hosting the majority of refugees.
The UN refugee agency said comparatively, some 1 855 died in the crossing in the same period in 2015 and 57 in the first five months of 2014. So far this year, 203 981 people have made the journey across the Mediterranean.
“The odds of being among the dead are currently one in 81,” said William Spindler, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“This highlights the importance of rescue operations as part of the response to the movement of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean and the need for real, safer alternatives for people needing international protection,” he added.
According to information from people who landed in Augusta over the weekend, 47 people were missing after a raft carrying 125 people from Libya deflated. Eight others were reported separately to have been lost overboard from another boat, and four deaths were reported after fire aboard another. These figures bring last week’s death toll to 880.
The Turkey-Greece route accounted for three quarters of the nearly 204 000 people who made the journey prior to the end of March.
Some 46 714 travelled to Italy. The North Africa-Italy route is dramatically dangerous: 2 119 people, or one in 23, died.
UNHCR is working to better understand the possible reasons and dynamics behind these movements.
The majority of boats departing Libya are at present reported to be leaving from the Sabratah area to the west of Tripoli. And as in the past they remain more crowded than those normally seen on the Turkey-Greece route, often carrying 600 or more passengers and sometimes being towed by larger fishing boats which in turn puts them at risk, Spindler said.
According to unconfirmed accounts, the recent increase in numbers is linked to efforts by smugglers to maximise income before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, he said.
Survivors said smuggler hubs operating in locations including Niger remain active in feeding people from West Africa through to Libya, where many remain for months before being put onto boats for the crossing to Europe.
Nigerians and Gambians are the most prominent nationalities travelling from Libya to Italy so far this year. Somalis and Eritreans, who are among countries more commonly associated with refugee movements, accounted for nine and eight percent respectively.
Reports of trauma from sexual and other forms of gender-based violence among women making the journey – or being trafficked – appear common. Some women said they were subject to sexual slavery in Libya. Arrivals of unaccompanied children are on the rise.