The number of migrants who died at sea trying to reach Europe has more than doubled this year, said Wednesday (July 14th) the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which calls on states to take urgent measures. According to statistics released by IOM in a new report, at least 1,146 people died at sea attempting to reach Europe in the first half of 2021. In 2020, 513 had perished 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. The coast guard, however, faces multiple accusations of ill-treatment 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.
The Mediterranean, by far the most dangerous
“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, quoted in a statement. “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. “
In the first six months of the year, the majority of deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean Sea (896), which represents an increase of 130% compared to the same period in 2020. Most of the migrants died in the Mediterranean Central (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. However, these figures are certainly much lower than reality, underlines the IOM, which argues that “Hundreds of cases of invisible shipwrecks” are reported by NGOs who are in direct contact with the people on board or their families.
Detention, extortion, torture
“These cases, which are extremely difficult to verify, show that the death toll on sea routes to Europe is much higher than what 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 subject to arbitrary detention, extortion, disappearance and torture”.