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Médecins Sans Frontières field coordinator Michele Telaro, together with members of the Bourbon Argos crew, distribute life jackets during the rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: MSF)

'Maritime Graveyard': 2016 Deadliest Year Ever for Refugees Crossing Mediterranean

"From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiraled to one in 88," says UNHCR spokesman

Deirdre Fulton

Marking a grim milestone, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reported that 2016 is the deadliest year ever for migrants trying to reach Europe.

The agency said Wednesday that at least 3,800 migrants—many of them fleeing war in their home countries—have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea this year, despite a significant drop in attempted crossings compared to 2015. 

"From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiraled to one in 88," UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, even before the latest reports came in.

Spindler attributed the spike in deaths to factors including bad weather, "a more perilous route," the use of "lower-quality vessels," and smugglers' changing tactics.

Reuters reported:

Since the European Union-Turkey deal in March to close down pathways to Greece, the Libya to Italy route across the central Mediterranean has become the main route. One per every 47 migrants or refugees attempting the voyage between Libya and Italy is meeting is dying, the UNHCR's Spindler said.

"Smuggling has become a big business, it's being done almost on an industrial scale. So now they send several boats at the same time and that puts rescue services in difficulty because they need to rescue several thousand people on several hundred boats," he said.

"But when you have so many people at sea on boats that are barely seaworthy, then the dangers obviously increase."

Meanwhile, aid group Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said Wednesday that 25 migrant men and women had been found dead at the bottom of a rubber boat in the Mediterranean. It rescued 107 people from the same vessel and saved an additional 139 people aboard a nearby rubber raft.

"This is a tragedy, but we can't say that today is an exceptional day at sea," said Stefano Argenziano, MSF manager of migration operations. "The past weeks have been horrific, with our rescue teams and other boats involved in almost continuous rescues and far too many men, women, and children dying."

He said "[s]ea rescue operations are becoming a race through a maritime graveyard and our rescue teams are overwhelmed by a policy-made crisis where we feel powerless to stop the loss of life."


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