The Malta Independent 23 January 2020, Thursday

Death on our doorstep: 15,000 migrants died between Libya and Italy since 2014

Sunday, 30 June 2019, 09:30 Last update: about 8 months ago

According to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reports, the Central Mediterranean has long been the deadliest overseas migration route to Europe, with more than 15,000 deaths and disappearances recorded between North Africa and Italy since 2014.

In its report Fatal Journeys, Missing Migrant Children published on Friday, the organisation says that, between 2011 and 2017, it also accounted for the largest number of people crossing by sea to Europe, with the exception of 2015 – when thousands of people crossed the Aegean Sea to reach the Greek Islands from Turkey.

After several years of relatively high levels of maritime migration to Italy, the number of people reaching Europe via the Central Mediterranean fell significantly in the second half of 2017, and even further from July 2018 onwards.

In parallel, the number of people being returned to North African shores has increased. Interceptions by the Tunisian and Libyan coastguards in 2016 accounted for eight per cent of all search-and-rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean.

In 2018, of the total number of people who attempted to cross this route, 49 per cent were pulled back to Tunisia and Libya.

Meanwhile, in 2018 at least 1,314 people lost their lives attempting to reach Europe via the Central Mediterranean, compared with 2,853 people in 2017. The fall in the number of recorded deaths is probably linked to the lower number of people travelling on this route. A total of 45,648 people were recorded to have attempted to cross the Central Mediterranean in 2018, down 68 per cent from the 144,301 in 2017.

Despite this, thousands of people continue to die each year in the Central Mediterranean, and the IOM reports there is considerable evidence that conditions for those embarking on this journey have worsened.

Available data show increasing risk to the lives and safety of people travelling on this route: in 2018, one in 35 people attempting the crossing perished, while in 2017 it was one in 50.28 A similar rate for large shipwrecks resulting in hundreds of deaths was observed, despite a fall in the total number of shipwrecks.

Of the 61 shipwrecks recorded in 2018, seven were large-scale incidents in which more than 100 people died or went missing. In 2017, eight out of 159 recorded shipwrecks were large-scale incidents.

The reduction in search-and-rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean is likely to have contributed to the worsening conditions for migrants taking this route, according to the IOM.

It says: “The restrictions placed on search-and-rescue NGOs, including the lack of authorisation to access safe ports for disembarkation, forced many of them to cease operations in the Central Mediterranean in 2018. Additionally, in March 2019 European Union states agreed to temporarily suspend the deployment of Operation Sophia’s naval assets in the Mediterranean.

“Beyond the tragic loss of life, a concerning consequence of the reduced number of dedicated search-and-rescue operations is the increased invisibility of migrant deaths. In this context, the risk that shipwrecks are occurring far from the eyes of the international community has intensified.”

Despite migrant deaths being a constant phenomenon in the Central Mediterranean for many years, the recovery of the remains of those lost at sea is generally not prioritised, the IOM says.

“As a result, basic information that could help identify the dead is often lacking. The limited information available suggests that the majority of those who perish in the Central Mediterranean are men, with 1,447 recorded deaths between 2014 and 2018. In the same period, Mixed Migrant Platform (MMP) documented the deaths of 564 women and 200 children.

However, as information on the deaths of women and children are highly dependent on the identification of the bodies, it is likely that higher proportions of women and children are included in the data on unidentified remains.


Overall migrant deaths recorded in 2018

In 2018, 4,734 people were known to have died on migratory journeys around the world, compared with 6,279 in 2017. This reduction in the total number of deaths documented was chiefly due to fewer recorded fatalities in 2018 during crossings from North Africa to Italy and Malta (the Central Mediterranean route), compared with 2017.

However, in 2018, the Mediterranean Sea, which had claimed the lives of at least 17,919 people in the past five years, continued to account for the highest number of reported deaths and disappearances during migration.

A key change in 2018 was the significant rise in the number of people who died on the Western Mediterranean route from the coasts of Northern Africa to mainland Spain and to the Spanish territories of Melilla and Ceuta. Irregularised arrivals in Spain doubled in 2018 as deaths nearly quadrupled, with 811 people known to have lost their lives along this route, compared with 224 in 2017.

The impact on total numbers of changes in flows and death rates in the Mediterranean is likely to be a reflection of the greater completeness of data from this region and the lack of data from others, rather than a true reflection of the Mediterranean’s dominance in numbers of global deaths.


The whole Mediterranean

Over the past 30 years, the Mediterranean Sea has become a site of escalating numbers of migrant fatalities. Between 2014 and 2018, MMP documented the cases of at least 17,919 people who died or disappeared in the Mediterranean.

When looking at data compiled over time by different organizations, 36,700 people are estimated to have lost their lives in their attempt to reach Europe since 2000.

The history of the Mediterranean is a history of migration, as the region has been shaped by intense and varied intercultural exchanges and the multi-directional mobility of people for thousands of years. Before the 1990s, there were no regular reports of deaths during sea crossings. However, since 1990 not a single year has passed without deadly tragedies.

The IOM reports: “There are many challenges involved in documenting deaths and disappearances of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. On sea crossing routes, bodies often are not found. Data indicate that the remains of almost 12,000 people who had drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 are yet to be recovered.

“Often, the only information available comes from surviving migrants. However, survivors’ fatality estimates may vary and may be hard to verify. What is normally used is the lowest reasonable figure for missing persons, which means that it is likely to be an undercount of the number of lives lost. When human remains are recovered, information from the authorities (e.g. coast guards) is relayed to IOM field missions, which then share it with the team.”


Missing children

A migrant child has died almost every day over the past four years while trying to reach safety, as a photograph of a man and his young daughter who drowned while trying to enter the United States this week sparked global outcry.

The UN migration agency said on Friday that at least 32,000 migrants globally, including 1,600 children, have died on dangerous journeys in search of better lives since it began compiling data on migrant deaths and disappearances in 2014.

“Children are dying in all regions of the world. Those children are unaware what is going on and they face terrible risks,” said Frank Laczko, head of the IOM Data Analysis Ventre.

The harrowing picture (top) of Oscar Alberto Martinez, 25, and his 24-month-old child Angie Valeria spotlighted the plight of the world’s 70 million forcibly displaced people – the majority of them children, according to UN refugee agency figures.

The pair had travelled from El Salvador to Mexico and were crossing the Rio Grande to seek asylum in the United States.

US Border Patrol reported 283 migrant fatalities on the border in 2018. Activists say the number is higher as many migrants who die in rugged stretches of wilderness along the 3,138-km long border are never found.

The UNHCR has compared the picture with the iconic photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi (above), whose body washed up on a Mediterranean beach in 2015. He was part of a Syrian refugee wave that caused panic in Europe, prompting Turkey to effectively shut down the migrant route through Greece at the behest of the European Union.

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