Six people died every day last year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe – “the world’s deadliest sea crossing” – the UN refugee agency said citing ongoing political deadlock over sea rescue and disembarkation.
According to a new report from the UNHCR, an estimated 2 275 individuals drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2018.
This is despite the fact that Europe saw the lowest number of refugees and migrants arriving for five years, at 139 300, principally Spain (65 400), Greece (50 500) and Italy (23 400).
“Saving lives at sea is not a choice, nor a matter of politics, but an age-old obligation,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “We can end to these tragedies by having the courage and vision to look beyond the next boat and adopt a long-term approach based on regional co-operation with human life and dignity at its core.”
Traumatised people kept at sea for days
In the last year, shifts in policy by some southern European States led to incidents where people were stranded at sea for days, because the boats carrying them were denied permission to dock.
“Large numbers of often traumatised and sick people were kept at sea for days before permission to disembark was granted,” the report states, “sometimes only after other States pledged to relocate the majority of those rescued”.
Volunteer rescue boats and their crews also face growing restrictions on operations, the UN report continues, adding on routes from Libya to Europe, “one person died at sea for every 14 who arrived in Europe”.
This is a sharp rise on 2017 levels, when the rate was one death for every 38 arrivals.
At the same, UNHCR highlights the Libyan Coast Guard decision to step up operations in 2018 meant more than eight in 10 of those picked up at sea were disembarked in Libya, where they faced “appalling conditions” in detention centres.
This includes limited access to food, disease and “several” deaths, the UN report notes, confirming abuses documented by the UN human rights office.
The UN agency forecasts an increasing number of migrant and refugee vessels will try to evade Libya’s coastguard and make for Malta and Italy this year.
Reaching Europe is ‘final stop’ in nightmarish journey
The highest number of people arriving in Spain was from Morocco and Guinea (13 000 each), while most of those reaching Italy came from Tunisia (5 200) and Eritrea (3 300).
More Afghans than other nationals headed to Greece (9 000), followed by Syrian refugees (7 900).
“Setting foot in Europe was the final stop of a nightmarish journey on which they faced torture, rape and sexual assault and the threat of kidnapping and held for ransom,” the UN report said, calling for the dismantling of smuggling networks and bringing perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
Despite the “political deadlock” among European States on crafting a regional approach to sea rescue and disembarkation, as called for by UNHCR and IOM, several States committed to relocating people rescued in the central Mediterranean – “a potential foundation for a predictable and lasting solution”.
Thousands of resettlement places were pledged by States for evacuating refugees out of Libya.
30 dead and 100 migrants missing in Djibouti boat tragedy
On a different but also perilous route for those seeking a new life, IOM said 30 people are known to have died when two vessels sank off Djibouti this week.
Sixteen survivors were rescued with IOM spokesperson Joel Millman warning the death toll could rise, as it assists authorities in the search for other passengers.
According to IOM, those who died were likely to have come from Ethiopia, whose nationals along with others from Somalia and Eritrea seek work in Arab States north of Yemen. The agency said since 2014, at least 199 people died off the Obock coast.