Deaths of migrants travelling by dangerous sea routes to Europe have soared in the first six months of the year. At least 1,146 people died attempting to reach Europe by boat from January to June, the UN migration agency, IOM said on Wednesday.

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That’s more than double the number of deaths recorded over the same period last year and it highlights how perilous maritime migration routes are from Africa to Europe.

In an appeal to countries to respect international human rights laws and obligations, IOM Director-General António Vitorino called for “urgent and proactive steps” to reduce loss of life.

Increase search and rescue

“Increasing search and rescue efforts, establishing predictable disembarkation mechanisms and ensuring access to safe and legal migration pathways are key steps towards achieving this goal,” he said.

New data from IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, highlighted that the spike in deaths was coupled with insufficient search and rescue operations – both in the Mediterranean and on the Atlantic Route to the Canary Islands.

At least 741 people died on the central Mediterranean route, while 149 people lost their lives crossing the western Mediterranean, and six died on the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece.

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In the same period, some 250 people drowned attempting to reach Spain’s Canary Islands on the West Africa/Atlantic route. However, that count may well be low, according to the agency.

Invisible wrecks

Hundreds of cases of “invisible shipwrecks” have been reported by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in direct contact with those on board or with their families.

Such cases, which are extremely difficult to verify, indicate that deaths on maritime routes to Europe are far higher than available data show, IOM adds.

One example cited by the agency was from 24 March, when Sohail Al Sagheer, a 22-year-old Algerian rapper, went missing when he and nine friends left from Oran, Algeria to Spain.

His family conducted a frantic search for information about what happened to him, torn with rumours that he was among the victims of a shipwreck off Almería, Spain. Tragically, his remains were finally recovered on 5 April, off the coast of Aïn Témouchent, Algeria. 

North Africa

The latest data also show an increase for the second consecutive year in North African States’ maritime operations in the central route. More than 31,500 people were intercepted or rescued by North African authorities in the first half of 2021, compared to 23,117 in the first six months of 2020.

Such operations off the coast of Tunisia have increased by 90 per cent in the first six months of 2021 compared to 2020. In addition, over 15,300 people were returned to Libya in the first six months of 2021, almost three times higher than the same period in 2020. This is concerning given that many migrants who are returned to Libya are subjected to arbitrary detention, extortion, disappearances, and torture.

Gaps remain

The briefing highlights the ongoing data gaps on irregular maritime migration to Europe.

“IOM reiterates the call on States to take urgent and proactive steps to reduce loss of life on maritime migration routes to Europe and uphold their obligations under international law,” said the IOM Director General. “Increasing search and rescue efforts, establishing predictable disembarkation mechanisms and ensuring access to safe and legal migration pathways are key steps towards achieving this goal.”