Two-hundred refugees have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
On Saturday, two dinghies sank while trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean, leaving 117 dead.
Last year, around 2,297 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean while 116,959 people reached Europe by sea.
According to the IOM, sea arrivals to Europe in the first 16 days of 2019 totalled 4,216, compared with 2,365 over the same period in 2018.
The new IOM numbers come as Italy, the first port of arrival for many trying to make the dangerous journey from North Africa to Europe, again faces heavy criticism for its treatment of refugees after sending 393 people back to Libya following their rescue.
“The 393 immigrants picked up by the Libyan coastguard yesterday are all safe and sound, and have been taken back [to Libya],” Matteo Salvini, interior minister with the new populist coalition government and leader of the anti-immigrant League party, said in a statement.
Salvini insists that turning away Europe-bound migrants is the only effective way to discourage illegal departures from Libya, and says a sharp fall in migrant arrivals proves he is right.
Until June 2018, Italy took in the vast majority rescued by humanitarian groups.
But Salvini has since closed Italian ports to rescue ships, much to the dismay of both humanitarian groups, international organisations and other European countries.
According to Rome’s interior ministry, 155 migrants have landed on Italian shores in the year to date, compared with 2,730 in the first 21 days of 2018.
The United Nations said that returning migrants to Libya goes against international law because they risk abuse and torture there.
“Return from international waters to Libya is against international law,” Vincent Cochetel, special envoy of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for the Central Mediterranean situation said following Salvini’s statement.
Cochetel based his statement, among other things, on a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) which details horrific circumstances refugees have to endure in Libya.
Another 117 lives lost, I heard many times « never again ». In reality, the tragedy continues and Mediterranean states cannot find a solution with the support of other states. https://t.co/npjIajAI3K
— vincent cochetel (@cochetel) January 20, 2019
According to the report, the refugees are kept in overcrowded Libyan detention camps, have no access to decent food, healthcare or sanitation, and are routinely beaten by guards.
“Migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya, including children, are trapped in a nightmare, and what EU governments are doing perpetuates detention instead of getting people out of these abusive conditions,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe director at HRW.
“Fig-leaf efforts to improve conditions and get some people out of detention do not absolve the EU of responsibility for enabling the barbaric detention system in the first place,” she added.
European countries have long been at odds about permanent solutions for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and many other countries trying to reach its shores.
In recent months Spain and Malta agreed to take in some rescued migrants following Italy’s refusal to do so, but often not before long negotiations with other European Union countries.
As a consequence, most humanitarian groups have abandoned sea rescue efforts.
Aquarius, the last charity rescue ship operating off Libya, ended its operations in December due to a “smear campaign” by European governments, according to Doctors without Borders (MSF), which ran the ship.
Last July, 193 UN members, excluding the United States, agreed on a non-binding pact to foster cooperation on migration.
But only 164 formally signed it in a meeting in December, with Australia, Israel and several Eastern European countries rejecting the migration compact.