Migrant deaths on dangerous sea routes to Europe, in particular across the Mediterranean, soared in the first six months of the year. At least 1 146 people died attempting to reach Europe by boat from January to June according to the UN migration agency IOM (International Organisation for Migration).
That is more than double the deaths recorded over the same period last year and highlights how perilous maritime migration routes between Africa and Europe are.
In an appeal to countries to respect international human rights laws and obligations, IOM director general Antonio Vitorino called for “urgent and proactive steps” to reduce the loss of life.
“Increasing search and rescue efforts, establishing predictable disembarkation mechanisms and access to safe and legal migration are key steps to achieving this,” he said.
New data from the IOM Missing Migrants Project (MMP) highlighted the spike in deaths was coupled with insufficient search and rescue operations – in the Mediterranean as well as the Atlantic Route to the Canary Islands.
At least 741 people died on the central Mediterranean route, while 149 people lost their lives crossing the western Mediterranean and six died on the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece.
In the same period, 250 people drowned attempting to reach Spain’s Canary Islands on the West Africa/Atlantic route. That tally may well be low, IOM said.
Hundreds of “invisible shipwrecks” were reported by non-government organisations (NGOs) in direct contact with those on board or with their families.
These cases, extremely difficult to verify according to IOM, indicate deaths on maritime routes to Europe are higher than available data show.
One example cited by the agency was from 24 March, when Sohail Al Sagheer, a 22-year-old Algerian rapper, went missing after he and nine friends left Oran in Algeria headed to Spain.
A family search for information about what happened to him, included rumours he was among victims of a shipwreck off Almeria, Spain. His remains were finally recovered on 5 April, off the coast of Aïn Témouchent, Algeria.
The latest data show an increase for the second consecutive year in North African states’ maritime operations on the central route. Over 31 500 people were intercepted or rescued by North African authorities in the first half of 2021, compared to 23 117 in the first six months of last year.
Rescue operations off Tunisia increased by 90% in the first six months of 2021 compared to 2020. Additionally, 15 300 people were returned to Libya in the first six months of 2021, three times more than the same period in 2020. This is concerning given many migrants returned to Libya are subjected to arbitrary detention, extortion, disappearances and torture IOM said.
“IOM reiterates its call for urgent and proactive steps to reduce loss of life on maritime migration routes to Europe and uphold international law obligations,” Vitorino said.