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Nearly 2,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year. Here's why

This handout image provided by Greece's coast guard on June 14 shows scores of people on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece, drowning hundreds of migrants.
Hellenic Coast Guard via AP
This handout image provided by Greece's coast guard on June 14 shows scores of people on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece, drowning hundreds of migrants.

Many around the world closely followed the plight last week of five wealthy men who went missing aboard a Titanic-bound submersible. Meanwhile, researchers at the United Nations' International Organization for Migration (IOM) updated the number of migrants who have died trying to reach Europe by sea this year: nearly 2,000.

The number of people who lose their lives each year in the crossing is staggering, and this year is on track to be worse than the last. Here are some of the reasons why this year has become so deadly:

Hundreds died aboard the Adriana

According to IOM data, at least 1,999 migrants died between January 1 and June 26 of this year, mostly from drowning. In the same period last year, 1,358 died. These tallies include those who died in the three major routes across the Mediterranean, as well as at the Atlantic route from West Africa.

One enormous tragedy accounts for a large portion of the uptick: the capsizing of the fishing boat Adriana two weeks ago in deep waters off the coast of Greece. The boat had departed Libya crammed with hundreds of people. When it capsized, it took the lives of most of the migrants on board, and IOM estimates the number who perished at 596.

Migrants from Eritrea, Libya and Sudan crowd the deck of a wooden boat as they wait to be assisted by aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, in the Mediterranean sea about 30 miles north of Libya, on June 17.
Joan Mateu Parra / AP
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AP
Migrants from Eritrea, Libya and Sudan crowd the deck of a wooden boat as they wait to be assisted by aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, in the Mediterranean sea about 30 miles north of Libya, on June 17.

More people are attempting the crossing

Another factor is that the overall number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean is higher than it was last year.

Italy in particular has seen a significant increase in the number of migrants arriving: more than 60,000 so far this year, compared with fewer than 27,000 at this point last year. IOM estimates that the total arrivals of migrants by sea to Mediterranean Europe are more than 82,000 this year, compared to fewer than 49,000 by this time last year.

Many of the migrant boats are aiming for the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which sits about halfway between Tunisia and Sicily. Two flows of migrants are now arriving at Lampedusa: those from Tunisia and those from Libya. Last week, 37 migrants went missing after their boat capsized between Tunisia and Lampedusa.

Migrants are traveling on boats not made for high seas

A new type of vessel has been departing Tunisia since October: boats made of iron.

These boats are prone to breaking and can capsize very easily. "The iron boats are the most fragile boats we have even seen in the Mediterranean," Flavio di Giacomo, spokesperson for IOM Italy, tells NPR.

"This is the first time I'm seeing migrants arrive in such bad condition from Tunisia," he says. "They arrive wet, without shoes, and exhausted. They arrive barefoot because there's water inside the boat."

The Libyan route has long been more dangerous than the Tunisian route, because it's farther. But with the use of iron boats, the Tunisian route has become much riskier than before.

Meanwhile, the route from Libya remains dangerous. At least 700 people are thought to have been crammed onto the Adriana – and overloaded boats are much more likely to capsize.

Reva Dhingra, a post-doctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in Middle East migration and migratory flows, says that smuggling networks in Libya and especially Tunisia worsen the problem.

Smugglers overload people onto flimsy fishing boats that are not seaworthy, "putting people in boats that really do not give them a good chance of getting into Europe," says Dhingra. "But that's often not the goal for the smugglers. They don't necessarily care if people reach their destination. They just care that they're paid for it."

Help from authorities is slow to arrive, and aid groups that help may be prosecuted

After the Adriana capsized, the Greek coast guard said it had not intervened because the Adriana had been progressing en route to Italy and did not need rescuing. But a BBC investigation found evidence that the boat had hardly moved for seven hours before it sank.

Di Giacomo says European coast guards are slow to intervene because it is not a priority for their governments. "These migrant boats don't meet the minimum requirement to sail at high seas, because they could capsize. So they should be saved immediately," he says. "[The coast guards] are not respecting the law of the sea."

Wreckage of a capsized boat was washed ashore at a beach near Cutro, southern Italy, in February.
Paolo Santalucia / AP
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AP
Wreckage of a capsized boat was washed ashore at a beach near Cutro, southern Italy, in February.

The number of migrants arriving in Europe now is similar to that of 2015-2017, di Giacomo says. But rescues were faster and more efficient then, because there were more European and non-governmental organization rescue ships at sea to aid boats in distress.

The New York Timespublished video footage last month that appears to show masked men putting asylum seekers — including young children — out to sea and the Greek coast guard abandoning them on an inflatable raft. They were picked up an hour or two later by the Turkish coast guard. The video appears to showa "pushback" — a practice whereby a state forces refugees and migrants out of its territory.

"The priority should be saving lives at sea. But this is not happening," says di Giacomo.

Dhingra notes that rescue efforts by civil society groups have been criminalized. Earlier this year, two dozen aid workers who participated in migrant rescue operations were put on trial in Greece. The UN said there were no longer any civil society rescue teams operating in Greek waters.

The true number of those who have drowned in the sea is thought to be far higher than IOM's minimum estimates.

"This year, there are probably a lot of ghost shipwrecks – boats that nobody knows about," di Giacomo says.

Dhingra says that to reduce the number of migrants who die in the crossing, it's vital to decriminalize rescue efforts, and focus on funding for protections and rights for migrants and refugees in transit countries such as Libya and Tunisia.

And, she says, "open more legal pathways for people to be able to access, so they don't have to make the desperate choice of going to sea."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.