EU member states need to do more to prevent deaths as peak crossing season approaches, rights groups warn.
At least 2,510 refugees have died while making the perilous journey to Europe so far this year, the UN refugee agency said, with fears rising that many more will suffer the same fate.
According to UNHCR, the figure marks an increase of 25 percent from the same five-month period in 2015, when some 1,855 refugees drowned. In 2014, from January until the end of May, at least 57 people died en route to Europe.
“Thus far 2016 is proving to be particularly deadly,” William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman, said. “This highlights the importance of rescue operations as part of the response to the movement of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, and the need for real, safer alternatives for people needing international protection.”
The announcement follows the deadliest week of 2016 for refugees at sea.
Over the past week, a series of shipwrecks off the Libyan and Italian coasts killed at least 880 people. That number was included as part of the UNHCR announcement, and marked an increase on previous estimates of around 700 people.
“According to some, unconfirmed, accounts, the recent increase in numbers is linked to efforts by smugglers to maximise income before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, in the coming week,” Spindler said in a statement.
So far this year, at least 203,981 people have made the journey to Europe, which is a similar number to those who arrived in the continent last year in the same period.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) put the death toll from January to May at 2,443 people.
Both counts are regularly used by human rights organisations.
The IOM said most of those travelling to Italy were from Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.
None of the deaths in May happened on the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece, where arrivals have slowed to a trickle since the EU struck a deal with Ankara to curb the flow.
Analysis by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said that during the week of May 23 to May 30, an average of five refugees drowned per hour as they tried to flee to Europe.