A series of shipwrecks and capsizings last week on the Mediterranean now appears to have claimed at least 880 lives, according to new information we have received through interviews of survivors in Italy.
As well as three shipwrecks that were known to us as of Sunday, we have received information from people who landed in Augusta over the weekend that 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.
Thus far 2016 is proving to be particularly deadly. Some 2,510 lives have been lost so far compared to 1,855 in the same period in 2015 and 57 in the first five months of 2014. On a Mediterranean-wide basis, the odds of being among the dead are currently one in 81. 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.
So far this year, 203,981 people have made the journey. Almost three-quarters of these travelled from Turkey to Greece prior to the end of March. Some 46,714 of these have travelled to Italy, almost the same as the total recorded there in the first five months of 2015 (47,463). The North Africa-Italy route is dramatically more dangerous: 2,119 of the deaths reported so far this year have been among people making this journey, making for odds of dying as high as one in 23.
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 that have normally been 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. According to some, unconfirmed, accounts the recent increase in numbers is linked to efforts by smugglers to maximize income before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, in the coming week.
According to survivors, smuggler hubs operating in locations including Niger remains active in feeding people from West Africa through to Libya, where many remain for many months before being put onto boats for the crossing to Europe. Reports of trauma from sexual and other forms of gender-based violence among women making the journey – or being trafficked – appear common. Some women have told us they were subject to sexual slavery in Libya. We have also been seeing an increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children.
As of now, UNHCR has not seen evidence of a significant diversion of Syrians, Afghans or Iraqis from the Turkey-Greece route to the Central Mediterranean one. The principle nationalities on the Libya to Italy route so far this year have been Nigerians and Gambians, although among countries more commonly associated with refugee movements 9 per cent have been Somalis and 8 per cent Eritreans.
Photo: Italian Navy