The country of origin of desperate migrants to Europe crossing the perilous central Mediterranean has changed with Syrians, Iraqis and Guineans overtaking migrants from Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
Last year, Nigerian migrants topped the list of nationalities who embarked on the dangerous journey. They were followed by the Guineans and then the Ivorians.
With new report by UN refugee agency, UNHCR underscoring how treacherous the route has increasingly become, the Guineans appear undeterred, as they are still leaving their country in droves.
In contrast, hundreds of Nigerians stranded in Libya are being lifted home and at the last count, close to 4,000 have been repatriated to Nigeria on the orders of President Muhammadu Buhari, while another 1,700 are rotting away in Libyan prisons.
The UNHCR said on Monday at least one in 18 of migrants dies or goes missing during the voyage – more than double the rate last year.
More than 1,600 people have perished or vanished en route to Europe this year, mostly while attempting to cross by sea from north Africa, according to the UNHCR report.
The publication of the report, “Desperate Journeys”, coincides with the third anniversary of the death of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach at the height of the migrant crisis, sparking global outrage.
Although arrivals have plummeted in recent years, European countries remain bitterly divided over how to share the burden of refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
“This report once again confirms the Mediterranean as one of the world’s deadliest sea crossings,” said Pascale Moreau, Director of the UNHCR’s Europe Bureau.
“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.”
The UNHCR said about 72,000 people had arrived in Italy, Greece and Spain between January and July, compared to about 121,000 for the same period in 2017. More than 1 million arrived in 2015.
However, one in 18 who attempted the risky central Mediterranean route died or went missing, up from one in 42 in the first part of last year.
The report said a key reason for the increased death rate was the reduced search and rescue capacity off the Libyan coast.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that operated there last year have largely been replaced by the Libyan Coast Guard. The report said rescues often happened further out to sea, meaning refugees were traveling for longer on unsafe boats.
Italy’s new populist government has meanwhile refused to let a number of NGO rescue vessels dock and is demanding the European Union find other ports to disembark migrants.
The UNHCR urged European countries to ensure a predictable, regional approach for rescues and disembarkation.
It also called for states to increase resettlement places for refugees and remove obstacles to family reunification so that people do not risk their lives at sea.
Overall, arrivals in Italy fell in the first seven months of 2018, compared to the same period last year, while arrivals rose in Greece and Spain, now the primary entry point to Europe.