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Migrants about to be rescued off the coast of Libya, April 2018. The journey has become deadlier this year with a sharply increased death rate / Photo: UNHCR

Migrant death rates at sea continue to climb, says UN refugee agency

The risk of death at sea for people crossing the Mediterranean continues to increase as the EU and member states attempt to stamp out refugee flows from Libya.

A report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) out on Monday (3 September) says that while the number of arrivals from Libya has dropped, the proportion of people lost at sea has increased.

“A higher proportion of people are dying at sea, with one death for every 18 persons who arrived in Europe via the central Mediterranean route between January and July this year compared to one death for every 42 in the same period in 2017,” notes the report.

The death rate increases from one out of every 18 that leave directly from Libya, compared to one for every 42 in the same period in 2017.

The proportionate spike in deaths appears linked to the decrease in search and rescue operations off the Libyan coast given Italy’s recent crackdown on NGO charity boats.

It poses questions for the EU’s repeatedly stated claims that the safety of refugees and migrants remains its top priority.

Earlier last month, the European Commission said it was training the Libyan coastguard because “our main objective is to protect migrants.”

But figures from the UNHCR paint a contradictory picture, noting that some eight charity boats had rescued 39,000 people in the first seven months of 2017.

Most of the NGO boats are now gone, with the Libyan coast guard launching the bulk of the rescues using just two vessels.

The EU-backed “migrant safety plan” is designed to shore up the Libyan coast guard to perform the operations off its coast and to get UN agencies to send people back home from Libya or shuffle them into a resettlement programme.

People plucked from the sea by the Libyan coast guard are sent to detention centres, which are rife with abuse.

The number of people detained has doubled in recent months to around 10,000, including women and children.

The country, which remains in turmoil, has also seen a recent flare up in violence, with running street battles between armed groups in Tripoli.

The fighting has put hundreds of refugees and migrants detained in Ain Zara at risk of getting caught up in the hostilities.

Meanwhile, the two remaining NGO boats that continue to operate do so further away from the Libyan coast amid intense political and legal pressure from Italy and Malta.

The result is that people in overcrowded boats which are not detected by the Libyan coast guard have to travel further and longer before getting rescued either by the NGOs, the Italian coastguard, or other military or commercial vessels in the area.

A snapshot into those that do arrive in Italy from Libya shows that Eritreans, who have a 92 percent chance of getting international protection, make up the second biggest group of arrivals after Tunisians.

Some 1,600 people were feared dead on the central Mediterranean route from the start of the year to end of July.

A total of 18,500 arrived in Italy by the route, compared 95,200 the same time last year.

© EUobserver

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