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UNHCR sounds alarm as Mediterranean Sea deaths pass 1,500 mark

UNHCR migrants
Rescue workers and survivors mourn over the coffins of two victims after hundreds of refugees were rescued and brought to Messina. Photo: UNHCR/Marco Rotunno

More than 1,500 refugees and migrants have lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the first seven months of this year – around 850 died in June and July alone, the UN Refugee Agency said.

Describing the Mediterranean crossing as the “deadliest sea route in the world,” UNHCR said it was particularly concerned as the rate of deaths was increasing even though the number of people arriving was significantly lower compared to previous years.

Around 60,000 people crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, around half as many as during the same period last year – a return to pre-2014 levels.

One in every 31 people attempting the crossing in June and July died or are missing, compared to one in 49 during the course of 2017, the UNHCR said.

“The UNHCR urges states and authorities along transit routes to take all necessary action to dismantle and disrupt smuggler networks,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Mediterranean.

“In order to save lives at sea, we must use appropriate and necessary measures to hold to account those who seek to gain profit from the exploitation of vulnerable human beings,” he added.

Unlike in previous years when Italy received the majority of new arrivals, Spain has become the primary destination, with more than 23,500 people arriving by sea, compared to around 18,500 in Italy and 16,000 in Greece.

The UNHCR had urged for search and rescue capacities on the Mediterranean Sea to be strengthened, after various legal and logistical restrictions were placed on NGO boats looking to rescue people in distress at sea. Earlier this year, a number of boats carrying rescued passengers were left stranded at sea for days on end after being refused opportunities to disembark.

In June, the government decided to detain two rescue vessel ships with migrants and grounded a plane used by a German NGO for rescue operations in the Mediterranean sea..

Enhanced search and rescue capacities, and a clear and predictable mechanism for disembarkation, are cornerstones of the joint Concept Note put forward by UNHCR together with IOM, calling for a regional, collaborative approach to saving lives on the Mediterranean Sea.

“Without a harmonised and collaborative way forward, that brings coastal states and key stakeholders from the maritime and shipping industry together, we are certain to see the tragedy of the Mediterranean Sea continue,” said Cochetel.

“With so many lives at stake, it’s vital that we give shipmasters confidence that they will be able to dock rescued passengers, and thereby ensure that the long-standing principle of rescuing people in distress at sea is protected.”

Refugees fleeing Syria make up around 13.5% of all new sea arrivals in Europe, the largest nationality group, highlighting the continued desperation faced by those affected by the world’s largest refugee crisis.

UNHCR reiterated its call for the international community to address the root causes of displacement that are driving people from their homes and forcing them to take increasingly dangerous and perilous journeys.

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