Mediterranean refugee deaths drop but experts say risks remain

January sees lowest fatalities since 2014 but concerns mount over the situation in Libya, more deaths off Turkish coast.

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    In 2019, at least 1,866 people died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean [Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP]
    In 2019, at least 1,866 people died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean [Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP]

    In the first month of 2020, at least 70 people drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting the perilous journey to Europe, the lowest level since 2014, the start of the refugee crisis.

    But experts have said refugees and migrants continue to face deadly risks and warned against interpreting the number as a positive development.

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    In January 2019, 216 people died, 243 in 2018; 254 in 2017; 370 in 2016; 82 in 2015 and 12 in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). 

    "The numbers of people drowning has dropped but there is no cause for celebration," Maria Serrano, Amnesty International's senior campaigner on migration, told Al Jazeera.

    She said thousands of migrants and refugees remain "trapped" in detention centres in Libya and suffer abuse including torture, extortion and sexual violence.

    They are unable to attempt the crossing, while those who do manage to escape are often "intercepted" by the Libyan coastguard, which receives training and equipment from the European Union as the bloc attempts to stop migration to Europe.

    In January, the Libyan coastguard intercepted about 1,000 people and returned them, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

    "People are exposed to the same dangers," Serrano said.

    There are more than 630,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, and 6,000 in official detention centres.

    Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said the lower number of deaths could also be attributed in part to search and rescue efforts by NGOs. 

    "You have more NGOs performing search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean right now than in years past," she told Al Jazeera.

    "In January 2019, for example, major rescue organisations like SOS Mediterranee, Sea-Watch, and Open Arms were blocked in ports because of judicial or administrative proceedings. So I think a main lesson here is that if European governments really care about saving lives in the Mediterranean, they shouldn't obstruct or criminalise civilian rescue groups."

    SOS Mediterranee operates Ocean Viking, a rescue ship, along with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF).

    Between January 24 and 26, 407 people were rescued by the ship, including 132 aged below 18.

    refugee detahs
    The Ocean Viking ship, which is run by SOS Mediterranee and MSF, picked up the refugees and migrants in five separate operations [MSF/AFP]

    The Malta navy picked up scores of others and took them to the small island.

    "It is very difficult to accurately count the number of people who are drowning in the Mediterranean," an MSF spokesperson told Al Jazeera. "A Libyan coastguard official estimated in an interview with Der Spiegel in August 2019, that half of the boats departing from Libya sink undetected and without survivors."

    As well as widely reported abuse at detention centres in Libya, the conflict there threatens to endanger migrants and refugees further.

    "It was illegal to return survivors rescued at sea to Libya before the fighting, and it remains illegal today," said the MSF spokesperson.

    While most refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean tend to come from Libya, via the Central Mediterranean route, almost all of those who died in January lost their lives on the Eastern Mediterranean route - attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece.

    "The death toll in the Eastern Mediterranean is very alarming. Of the overall total dead in the Mediterranean, 63 died attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece in one month. In all of 2019, a total of 71 died in the Eastern Mediterranean. So a big question is, why are so many more people dying in the Eastern Mediterranean?"

    The EU-Turkey deal in March 2016 effectively closed the Eastern Mediterranean route, but more people have recently been attempting to cross from Turkey, which hosts the world's largest refugee population.

    In 2019, at least 1,866 people died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, a 23 percent drop from the year before and the lowest since 2014. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News