Migrant death toll in Mediterranean tops 1,000

At least 1,000 people have died or are missing and presumed dead following a string of deadly incidents in the Mediterranean Sea over the last week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has said.

The updated IOM tally was drawn from the accounts of survivors who were saved at sea or landed in Italy in recent days.

Figures from aid groups and Italian police had on Sunday counted at least 700 deaths from three shipwrecks over three consecutive days, but IOM pointed to other smaller incidents, as well as more precise figures following interviews with survivors.

The IOM says 62 people were confirmed dead and another 971 were missing and presumed dead in nine incidents on the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy since May 25.

The UN refugee agency spokesman William Spindler said this year is proving to be “particularly deadly” on the Mediterranean, with some 2,510 lives lost compared to 1,855 over the same period a year ago.

Mr Spindler reiterated UNHCR’s appeal to the EU to allow for more legal pathways for refugees to reach Europe, and said it was “shameful” that the bloc had resettled fewer than 2,000 people under a plan announced last year to resettle 160,000.

He said authorities were still trying to understand the increase in deaths, even as they know the region is moving into its high season for human trafficking.

UNHCR cited unconfirmed accounts that smugglers might be trying to “maximize income” before the Ramadan holy month, which begins in the first week of June.

Mr Spindler also said he had never heard of smugglers using such risky tactics as having one overloaded boat tow another one overflowing with hundreds of people.

IOM spokesman Joel Millman also pointed to a new tactic used by smugglers in recent weeks.

“Traffickers and smugglers working out of Libya are using much bigger boats now, carrying as many as 750 people, where for the last 12 months, we’ve been seeing a lot of smaller rubber inflatable dinghies,” Mr Millman said at a Geneva news conference alongside Mr Spindler.

UNHCR said most boats leaving Libya are departing from Sabratha, west of Tripoli.

A deal between the EU and Turkey to return migrants to Turkey has significantly dampened the migrant sea route into Europe from Turkey to Greece, which hundreds of thousands of people used last year.

UNHCR has been watching for signs that migrants may be shifting to the much longer and more dangerous Libya-Italy option.

“As of now, UNHCR has not seen evidence of a significant diversion of Syrians, Afghans or Iraqis from the Turkey-Greece route to the central Mediterranean one,” Mr Spindler said.

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