September 19, 2021

Deaths of migrants reaching Europe by sea more than doubled

The number of migrants who died at sea trying to reach Europe has more than doubled this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Wednesday (July 13th) in a new report. At least 1,146 people died at sea trying to reach Europe during the first half of 2021. In 2020, 513 had died during the same period, and 674 in 2019.

‘Civilian search and rescue organizations continued to face significant obstacles, with the majority of their boats stranded in European ports due to administrative seizures and ongoing criminal and administrative proceedings against crew members’ , notes the report.

IOM also notes that the increase in deaths comes at a time when interceptions of boats carrying migrants off the coast of North Africa are on the rise.

For years, Italy and the European Union have financed, trained and equipped the Libyan coastguard to prevent smugglers from bringing migrants and refugees to Europe on board makeshift boats. In addition, an Italian navy ship anchored in Tripoli provides them with technical assistance.

Coast guards accused of ill-treatment

The coast guards are however facing multiple accusations of mistreatment of asylum seekers, leading many NGOs to denounce this policy. Under international maritime law, people rescued at sea should be disembarked at a safe port. And the UN does not consider Libya to be a safe port.

‘IOM reiterates the call for States to take urgent and proactive measures to reduce the loss of life on maritime migration routes to Europe and to comply with their obligations under international law’ , said IOM Director General Antonio Vitorino. ‘Increasing search and rescue efforts, putting in place predictable disembarkation mechanisms and ensuring access to safe and legal migration routes are key steps in achieving this goal,’ he said. he adds.

In the first six months of the year, the majority of deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean Sea (896), which is an increase of 130% compared to the same period in 2020. Most died in the central Mediterranean ( 741), regularly described by humanitarian organizations as the most dangerous migratory route in the world, followed by the eastern Mediterranean (149). Six perished trying to reach Greece by sea from Turkey. During the same period, at least 250 migrants perished at sea during their attempt to cross to the Canary Islands, located in the Atlantic Ocean.

‘Invisible shipwrecks’

However, these figures are certainly much lower than the reality, underlines the IOM, which argues that ‘hundreds of cases of invisible shipwrecks’ are reported by NGOs which are in direct contact with those on board or with their families. ‘These cases, which are extremely difficult to verify, show that the number of deaths on sea routes to Europe is much higher than what the available data indicates,’ adds the international organization based in Geneva.

The report shows an increase for the second consecutive year in maritime operations by North African states along the Central Mediterranean route. According to IOM, more than 31,500 people were intercepted or rescued by North African authorities in the first half of the year, up from 23,117 in the first six months of 2020.

This type of operations carried out off the Tunisian coast increased by 90% during the first half of the year compared to the same period last year. In addition, more than 15,300 people were returned to Libya in the first six months of 2021, almost three times more than in the same period in 2020 (5,476). For IOM, this situation is ‘worrying given that migrants who are returned to Libya are subjected to arbitrary detention, extortion, disappearance and acts of torture’.