Drop in deaths in Mediterranean is hopeful sign, migration body says


Fewer migrants are dying as they try to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, which may reflect better management of refugee flows and swifter rescue operations, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.

So far this year 1,370 migrants and refugees have perished at sea, nearly 25 percent fewer than in the same period last year, IOM spokesman Joel Millman said. An estimated 191,134 people have arrived by boat so far this year in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain.

The death toll included 13 in May, none of them on the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece, where arrivals have slowed to a trickle since the European Union struck an agreement with Turkey to get it to curb the flow.

This compared with 95 deaths in May a year ago and 330 in May 2014. More than 3,770 people are estimated to have died in the whole of 2015, most of them by drowning after their flimsy, overloaded boats capsized.
“Obviously now that the Turkey-Greece route appears suspended for the time being, we hope that this is the beginning of a sound management policy of refugees and migrants who wish to make the crossing and don’t take these enormous risks,” Millman told a news briefing.

Some 2,725 migrants were rescued attempting to reach Europe from Libya over the past 24 hours by various vessels, he said. IOM also had reports that Libya’s coastguard had turned back 850 migrants.

IOM has had greater access to Libya since a U.N.-backed national unity government was formed last month. The agency is helping to organise charter flights to repatriate sub-Saharan migrants who agree to take a package or receive a re-integration grant.
“Those are also key developments that indicate that it’s possible, and I want to stress that it’s possible, that the period of stark lethality that has been going on since 2013 may have run its course by now,” Millman said. “Maybe we’ll see a safer summer than we had anticipated a few weeks ago.”

Meanwhile, Italian vessels have helped rescue more than 2,600 migrants from boats trying to reach Europe from North Africa in the last 24 hours, the coastguard said on Monday, indicating that numbers are rising as the weather warms up.

Some 2,000 migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast from 14 rubber dinghies and one larger boat in salvage operations by the Italian navy and coastguard, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres and an Irish navy vessel, the coastguard said.

Another 636 migrants were rescued from two boats in Maltese waters, in operations involving Maltese and Italian vessels, it said. It gave no information about the nationalities of those saved.

More than 31,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat so far this year, slightly fewer than in the same period of 2015.

Humanitarian organisations say the sea route between Libya and Italy is now the main route for asylum seekers heading for Europe, after an EU deal on migrants with Turkey dramatically slowed the flow of people reaching Greece.

Officials fear the numbers trying to make the crossing to southern Italy will increase as conditions improve in warmer weather.

More than 1.2 million Arab, African and Asian migrants fleeing war and poverty have streamed into the European Union since the start of last year.

Most of those trying to reach Italy leave the coast of lawless Libya on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies, heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is close to Tunisia, or towards Sicily.