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Migrant deaths in Mediterranean reach highest level in 6 years

The number of migrant deaths in the Central Mediterranean in the first three months of 2023 reached their highest point in six years, according to a new report Wednesday from the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM). 

In the first quarter of the year, the IOM documented 441 deaths of migrants attempting to cross what the agency calls "the world's most dangerous maritime crossing." It's the highest fatality count for a three-month period since the first quarter of 2017, when 742 deaths were recorded, according to IOM numbers. 

Every year thousands of migrants, in sometimes rickety and overcrowded smuggler boats, attempt to reach Europe's southern shores from North Africa. 

Migration Italy
A ship carrying some 700 migrants enters the Sicilian port of Catania on April 12, 2023.  Salvatore Cavalli / AP

Last weekend, 3,000 migrants reached Italy, bringing the total number of migrant arrivals to Europe through the Central Mediterranean so far this year to 31,192, the IOM said. 

The report seeks to serve as a wake-up call that food insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic and violent conflicts worldwide have dramatically increased the movement of both migrants and refugees around the world.

"The persisting humanitarian crisis in the Central Mediterranean is intolerable," said IOM Director General António Vitorino in a statement. "With more than 20,000 deaths recorded on this route since 2014, I fear that these deaths have been normalized."

"States must respond," Vitorino said, adding that delays and gaps in search and rescue operations "are costing human lives."

The IOM noted in its report that the number of recorded deaths was "likely an undercount of the true number of lives lost in the Central Mediterranean." 

"Saving lives at sea is a legal obligation for states," the IOM chief said, adding that action was needed to dismantle the criminal smuggling networks "responsible for profiting from the desperation of migrants and refugees by facilitating dangerous journeys." 

The delays in government-led rescues on this route were a factor in hundreds of deaths, the report noted. 

The report is part of the IOM's Missing Migrants Project, which documents the Central Mediterranean route taken by migrants from the North Africa and Turkish coasts, often departing Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria for Italy and Malta. Those nations serve as a transit point from all parts of the world, and have done so for many years. 

Last November, Italy announced that it would close its ports to migrant ships run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  

The report noted a February shipwreck off Italy's Calabrian coast in which at least 64 migrants died. 

It also mentioned a boat carrying about 400 migrants that went adrift this past weekend, between Italy and Malta, before it was reached by the Italian Coast Guard after two days in distress. In a video posted to social media Wednesday, a spokesperson for Sea-Watch International, an NGO, criticized Malta for not assisting the ship, saying that Malta did not send a rescue ship "because they want to avoid" migrants "reaching their country."

"So far this year, Malta did not rescue any person in distress," the spokesperson alleged.

Italy, for its part, on Tuesday declared a state of emergency over the migrant crisis, pressing the European Union for help.  

An attempted crackdown on smuggler ships has pushed migrants to take a longer and more dangerous Atlantic route to Europe from northwest Africa, resulting in what an Associated Press investigation dubbed "ghost boats" that have washed up with dead bodies, sometimes abandoned by their captains.

"Every person searching for a better life deserves safety and dignity," U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, a former refugee chief, said in February when the death toll spiked. "We need safe, legal routes for migrants and refugees."

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