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UNHCR: 2016 deadliest year for refugees and migrants crossing Mediterranean

Deaths of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean this year have hit a record high, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said.

UNHCR says measures to save lives are available and urges all countries to do more in this regard
UNHCR says measures to save lives are available and urges all countries to do more in this regard

With only two months to go, at least 3,740 lives have already been lost in 2016, just short of the 3,771 reported for the whole of 2015, UNHCR said.

“This is the worst we have ever seen,” UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told a press briefing in Geneva.

Many lives have been lost despite a large overall fall this year in the number of people seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

“Last year at least 1,015,078 people made the crossing. This year so far, crossings stand at 327,800. From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiralled to one in 88. On the Central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy the likelihood of dying is even higher, at one death for every 47 arrivals,” Mr Spindler said.

The causes of the increase are multiple, he said, adding that about half those who have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year have travelled from North Africa to Italy – a more perilous route.

“People smugglers are today often using lower-quality vessels – flimsy inflatable rafts that often do not last the journey. Several incidents seem to be connected with travel during bad weather,” Mr Spindler said.

He pointed out that the tactics of smugglers were switching too, with several occasions when there have been “mass embarkations of thousands of people” at a time.

“This may be to do with the shifting smuggler business model or geared towards lowering detection risks, but it also makes the work of rescuers harder,” he said.

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Addressing this situation while ensuring functioning asylum systems remains a policy challenge for many countries, UNHCR said. The organization however holds that measures to save lives are available and urges all countries to do more in this regard.

UNHCR has urged destination countries to significantly and urgently expand the availability of regular pathways for refugees to reach safety. “Such means include enhanced resettlement and humanitarian admissions, family reunification, private sponsorship, and humanitarian, student and work visas for refugees,” Mr Spindler said. “The high death rate is also a reminder of the importance of continuing and robust search and rescue capacities – without which the fatality rates would almost certainly be higher.”

UNHCR has thanked governments and private entities who on a daily basis, and often in difficult conditions, contribute to the important work of saving lives.

Watch the story of Sumaya, a Sudanese refugee who attempted the Mediterranean crossing from Egypt