PARIS – More migrants have died or disappeared in 2016 than in any previous recorded year, more than half of them in the Mediterranean Sea.
In a survey of migration routes across the world, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported Thursday that 7,189 migrants and refugees have died so far this year. Of the total, 4,812 migrants were lost in the Mediterranean, in the midst of the greatest migration crisis in Europe since 1945.
In the past two years, nearly 1.5 million migrants and refugees have poured into continental Europe, mostly from war-torn regions in Africa and the Middle East. For those who come by sea, the Mediterranean routes have proved particularly dangerous.
To maximize profits, smugglers often pack as many migrants as possible into makeshift vessels. In the event of mechanical difficulties or the bad weather common in the winter months, few of these migrants can swim. Rescue agencies frequently discover capsized boats with scores of drowned migrants nearby.
In what remains one of the worst disasters in the migrant crisis to date, an 88-foot boat crammed with nearly 700 people sank off the coast of Italy in April 2015. Only 28 of those aboard – from Mali, Somalia, Ghana, Algeria and other places – survived.
This week, a judge in Sicily convicted the boat’s 28-year-old Tunisian captain of multiple counts of manslaughter, sentencing him to 18 years in prison and a fine of 9 million euros ($9.4 million). His 26-year-old Syrian crew mate was sentenced to five years for assisting illegal immigration and fined the same amount.
Before the end of 2016, more deaths are expected, the IOM said Thursday.
Analysts emphasized that the vast majority of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean came in the “central Mediterranean route,” from Libya to the outer Italian islands or mainland.
Contrary to expectations, said Marc Pierini, a former European Union ambassador to Libya and Syria, political turmoil in Libya has done little to curb migration flows, which have somehow increased despite continually high risk.
“They continued traveling, and because apparently it’s such a lucrative business, even people fighting among themselves seem to make arrangements to let these people go through,” Pierini said.
“Everybody is making a profit, and the migrants are taking a higher risk,” he said.
The EU’s anti-smuggling operation – known as “Operation Sophia” – requires the navies of respective member states to rescue migrants on overcrowded boats. While saving lives, this also has exacerbated the problem, Pierini said: Smugglers know that migrants will be saved and pay even less attention to providing safe transfers or even enough fuel for boats to make a crossing.
“In the absence of an official, formal arrangement between the EU and Libya,” he said, “this is not going to stop.”
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