The United Nations refugee agency reported today that new data on irregular crossings of the Mediterranean in the third quarter of 2013 show an alarming increase in the numbers of people perishing while attempting to make the journey to Europe.
"We are failing to heed the lessons from the terrible events of last October, and more and more refugees are drowning trying to reach safety,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), referring to the tragic incident a year ago this week in which a boat carrying migrants from Libya caught fire and sank within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa, leaving 368 people dead and just 155 survivors.
According to the agency, 90,000 people crossed to Europe between July 1 and September 30 and at least 2,200 lost their lives, compared to 75,000 people and 800 deaths for the period between January 1 and June 30.
In all, 165,000 people have made the crossing so far this year compared to 60,000 for all of 2013 – making 2014 a record year and reflecting the level of desperation among many of those involved.
While the full reasons for this year's increases both in crossings and deaths are not known, a number of factors appear to be involved. Growing insecurity in Libya, for example, has hit asylum-seekers and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East– prompting many to flee.
"Libya must play its part in ensuring respect for the principles of human rights and international law, because weak law enforcement is allowing people smuggling networks to prosper," the UNHCR statement said.
Last month's tragedy off Malta, in which as many as 500 people were killed when their boat was reportedly sunk by smugglers, left only 11 survivors. Those few that survived spent days in the water watching helplessly as family members and friends perished.
“ EU [European Union] countries must work together to continue and bolster the vital task – which has been mostly carried out by Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, but also by commercial vessels – of rescuing people at sea," said Mr. Guterres.
The collective response needs to maintain a strong capacity to rescue people at sea and increase safer ways for refugees to find safety in Europe. If Europe fails in these efforts, many more lives will continue to be lost, and incidents such as the disasters off Lampedusa will become more common, said UNHCR.
Although not all of the people making the journey to Europe are looking for asylum, the data show that the proportion fleeing war or persecution in their countries is growing. Asylum-seekers from Syria and Eritrea have accounted for almost half of those making the crossing since July 1.
"We have to find better ways of allowing these desperate people to find a place of safety. They have gone through dangers and horrific experiences which many of us can only try to imagine," said Mr. Guterres.
Such schemes may include increased resettlement quotas and access to humanitarian visas for people fleeing war and persecution, as well as joint border management policies involving the EU and North African countries that look at border security with a human rights component.
UNHCR is also calling on European governments to establish private sponsorship schemes and use programmes such as student or employment visas for refugees. A joint European response is needed to ensure reception facilities and identify solutions for those in need of international protection.