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UNHCR: Migrant and Refugee Death Toll Soaring On Mediterranean Sea Crossings

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Mediterranean Sea Crossings Resulting in High Refugee and Migrant Deaths in 2016

In a press release today in Geneva, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson William Spindler indicated that the number of crossings on the Mediterranean Sea has dramatically increased this year. Nearly 204,000 migrants and refugees have made the journey to either Greece or Italy, and the higher number of crossings are leading to more deaths.

Spindler pointed out that three-fourths of the nearly 204,00 people made the journey before the end of March, traveling from Turkey to Greece. The North Africa-Italy route has also increased. In 2015, about 46,450 people traveled to Italy in the first five months, yet nearly that same amount made the crossing in 2016 -- before the end of March.

He also noted that boats leaving for Italy are often towed behind larger fishing boats, and are more crowded than those departing for Greece, with some carrying upwards of 600 people. The overcrowding alone partially accounts for the greater risk.

North Africa-to-Italy Route Most Deadly

This dramatic increases have resulted in a Mediterranean-wide death toll ratio of about one in 81, and nearly one in 23 on the North Africa-Italy route. This latter route is significantly more dangerous, which accounts for the higher death toll ratio, according to Spindler. Most of the boats appear to be departing from Libya, between Sabratah and west of Tripoli.

UNHCR Seeks Reasons for Dramatic Increase in Crossing Numbers

The UNHCR is struggling to establish the reason for the dramatic increase in crossings, and is stressing the importance of finding real solutions for these individuals that need protection. Spindler addressed rescue operations as being a critical portion of the response efforts for assisting these migrants and refugees.

According to Spindler, majority of the nationalities appear to be Nigerians and Gambians, with approximately nine percent being Somali and Eritrea refugees. The reasons for the large increase in the crossings is yet unclear, according to the UNHCR, but survivor information suggests it is partially smuggling and human trafficking, with reports of gender-based violence against women being common.

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.