One in 18 people who have attempted the unregulated journey from Northern Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea have either died or went missing this year, according to a new report by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
That makes this year the deadliest yet since the migrant crisis fueling the boat crossings began several years ago in 2015.
“This report once again confirms the Mediterranean as one of the world’s deadliest sea crossings,” Pascale Moreau, UNHCR’s director of the bureau for Europe, said in a statement. “With the number of people arriving on European shores falling, this is no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives.”
In total, more than 1,600 people have either died or went missing while attempting the crossing in 2018. That’s less than in previous years, but the rate of death is higher. In 2016, for example, 5,143 people died making the crossing, but for every one person who died, 70 made it safely to shore.
The UN argues that this is largely because rescue missions have been significantly curtailed by European countries in the region. Italy, in particular, has enacted stiffer migrant controls and deterrent measures this year, especially after the election of the far-right, anti-migrant candidate Giuseppe Conte as prime minister, according to the New York Times.
“A major factor contributing to the increased death rate is the decreased search and rescue capacity off the Libyan coast this year compared to the same period last year,” UNHCR said in its report.
As a sign of the new political atmosphere, Italy prevented a boat with 629 rescued migrants from docking in June, forcing it to go to Spain.
But throughout Europe, countries are policing their borders, expelling migrants, and reneging on migrant and refugee commitments.
In fact, human rights group Amnesty International argues that the entire European Union is complicit in the Mediterranean death toll.
“Responsibility for the mounting death toll falls squarely on European governments who are more concerned with keeping people out than they are with saving lives,” said Matteo de Bellis, researcher on asylum and migration at Amnesty International.
“European governments are colluding with the Libyan authorities to contain refugees and migrants in Libya, despite the horrific abuses they face at the hands of the Libyan coast guard and in detention centres in Libya,” he added.
Because of reduced coast guard efforts, the Mediterranean is largely patrolled by private rescue teams and Libya’s coast guard, which is under resourced and has been accused of gross incompetence, and human rights violations.
In July, the Libyan Coast Guard allegedly left two women and a child to die after deflating their dinghy during a patrol and rescue effort.
NGO rescue teams have also faced increasing resistance by the EU in recent years. In fact, a group of aid workers who had saved 51 migrants from drowning were arrested and accused of human trafficking crimes. They were eventually exonerated, but the prolonged detention and trial hampered other rescue efforts by deterring aid workers.
The UN is using its latest report to call on countries to revamp refugee and migrant programs by improving resettlement options, investing in rescue efforts, and sending aid to countries creating large outflows of migrants and refugees in the first place.