GENEVA - Even as the number of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe has fallen sharply, the likelihood of dying during the dangerous voyage has risen significantly, the U.N. said Monday.
Between January and July, more than 58,000 asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe’s shores after crossing the Mediterranean Sea — 41 percent fewer than during the same period in 2017, the U.N. refugee agency said.
The number of people taking the particularly dangerous central Mediterranean route to Italy fell to just 18,500, down from over 95,000 during the first seven months of last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a fresh report.
But the agency warned that Mediterranean crossings were now “deadlier than ever,” with the rate of deaths at sea rising sharply.
“The reason the traffic has become more deadly is that the traffickers are taking more risk, because there is more surveillance exercised by the Libyan coast guards,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean. “They are trying to cut the costs: It costs them more to keep those people here longer in their warehouses, under captivity.”
During the first seven months of the year, nearly 1,600 people perished trying to make the treacherous journey.
Around 1,200 of those deaths occurred along the central Mediterranean route — around half the number seen last year when there were five times as many arrivals in Italy.
That means that one person died for every 18 who attempted to make the journey along that route, compared with one in 42 who crossed during the same period in 2017.
In Libya, authorities there intercepted or rescued 18,400 people between August last year and July this year — a 38 percent increase from the same period of 2016 and 2017. Arrivals by sea from Libya to Europe plummeted 82 percent in those comparable periods, to 30,800 in the more recent one.
UNHCR says a growing worry these days is deaths on land by people trying to get to Libya in the first place, or getting stuck in squalid, overcrowded detention centers: Many get returned there after failing to cross by sea to Europe.
“The problems after disembarkation (is that) those people are sent back to detention centers, and many disappear,” Cochetel said. “Many are sold to militias, and to traffickers, and people employing them without paying them.”
He said the drop in departures means that traffickers attempt to “monetize their investment, which means they have to exploit more people. That results in more cases of slavery, forced labor, prostitution of those people — because they (smugglers) want to make money on those people.”
Would-be workers and migrants are still pouring into Libya: Some are fleeing injustice, abuse or autocrats in their home countries further south in Africa. Others are looking for work in the oil industry or agriculture.
“I think you have more deaths on land,” Cochetel said, referring to treks across the desert in Sudan, Algeria, Chad and Niger. “Many people in Libya are reporting having seeing people dead in the desert on the way to Libya.”
In Libya, instability continues even seven years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. French medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said Friday that fighting between rival militias in Tripoli, the capital, has endangered the lives of people trapped there and worsened humanitarian needs — especially at migrant detention centers.
“This report once again confirms the Mediterranean as one of the world’s deadliest sea crossings,” Pascale Moreau, who heads UNHCR’s Europe operations, said in a statement.
“With the number of people arriving on European shores falling, this is no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives,” he said.
Despite the dramatic drop in arrivals, Europe is facing a large-scale political crisis over the migrants and refugees who continue to arrive from Africa and the Middle East.
Italy’s recently-installed populist government has vowed to stop taking in migrants rescued off Libya, and along with Malta has repeatedly closed its ports to NGO ships crisscrossing the Mediterranean to help those in need.
Spain, which has opened its ports to several rescue ships run by charities which were turned away from Italy, has meanwhile seen the number of arrivals during the first seven months of this year more than double to 27,600, UNHCR said.
In recent months, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration have been calling for a “predictable, regional approach” to the rescue and disembarkation of people in distress in the Mediterranean.
Monday’s report was released three years after photos of the limp, lifeless body of Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed up on Turkish shores brought into sharp relief the dangers faced by migrants and refugees trying to reach safety in Europe.
Afghan author and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Khaled Hosseini warned that Europe had not heeded the lessons present in those shocking pictures.
“When I saw those devastating images of the body of Alan Kurdi, my heart shattered,” Hosseini said in the statement.
“Yet, just three years on and despite thousands more people losing their lives at sea, our collective memory and urgency to do better seems to have faded.”