At least 240 people are feared to have drowned in the southern Mediterranean, bringing the annual total to 4220 – the highest in the Mediterranean on record.
About 100 people drowned when an inflatable dinghy capsized shortly after leaving the Libyan coast yesterday, some of the 29 survivors told the UN refugee agency. A further 140 are thought to have drowned in a second incident in another rubber boat today. Only two people appear to have survived the second tragedy.
The survivors’ testimonies “were all very consistent”, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, Carlotta Sami, said.
“They report two shipwrecks, both not far from the Libyan shore, and they report the boats were in a very bad condition. Many women, pregnant women and children were on board, and they were in the water for hours.”
Though the numbers migrating from Turkey to Greece have dropped drastically since March after an agreement between the EU and Turkey, crossings between Libya and Italy are still at near-record levels.
Nearly 160,000 people have reached Italy so far this year from Libya, already more than last year’s annual total, and within sight of the 2014 record of 170,000.
“If the trends of October continue, then we might see even higher arrivals [than in 2014],” said Sami. “Let’s see what happens in November.”
Military missions from several European countries, including Britain, have tried to curb the Libyan smuggling industry by intercepting and destroying the smugglers’ repurposed fishing trawlers after they leave Libyan waters.
In response, the smugglers have simply turned to flimsy inflatable boats, which can be piloted by refugees themselves, and which are even more dangerous than the wooden trawlers. As a result, asylum seekers’ lives have been put at even greater risk – this year, roughly one in every 40 attempting to reach Italy by sea have died.
Syrians appear to have stopped using the Libyan route. Most of the migrants and refugees this year have fled war and poverty in Nigeria and Sudan, or dictatorships in Eritrea and Gambia. Others are migrant workers who tried to find jobs in Libya but fled after a civil war broke out and law and order collapsed.
In this context, many claim the dangerous sea journey is the least worst option facing them, due to the dire situation in Libya. “A dead goat doesn’t fear the butcher’s knife,” quipped one person in Libya during an interview with The Guardian last year.
Many are kept in slavery-like conditions by their Libyan employers, while others are tortured or extorted, sometimes by the authorities. About 70% say they faced some kind of exploitation in Libya, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Some European politicians have argued that the Mediterranean rescue missions, stationed off the Libyan coast, encourage more people to risk the journey. But while many more would drown without the presence of the rescue boats, there is no evidence that their absence would drive down numbers.
When EU-led rescue missions were suspended in early 2015, more migrants and refugees attempted the journey than ever before, and more drowned. Media reports suggested that both migrants and smugglers were unaware of the existence of the rescue missions.