Ruthless smuggling gangs’ ever-riskier use of overloaded, unseaworthy boats to traffic people across the Mediterranean to Europe contributed to a significant rise in the number of migrant deaths last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
In all, 7,763 migrants lost their lives worldwide in 2016, representing a 27% increase on the 6,107 who died the previous year.
Two out of every three 2016 migrant deaths occurred in the Mediterranean Sea, where 5,098 people lost their lives attempting reach Europe last year, according to IOM data.
The UN body highlighted that its figures should be taken as a minimum, as many deaths resulting from shipwrecks in the Mediterranean are not reported.
According to the IOM, evidence suggests the changing tactics of people smuggling gangs had an impact on the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean in 2016.
Some have taken to launching multiple boats at the same time, making it more difficult for rescuers to target their resources, while others are sending out vessels on rough seas during the winter months, making it more likely that their boats will encounter difficulties.
Commenting on the figures, Frank Laczko, IOM analysis centre Director, said: “This is not something completely new, but there is a reckless behaviour on the part of smugglers who only want to increase their profits.
“There are huge sums of money to be made for each of those boats that cross the Mediterranean, so the more people you can cram into a boat, the more money you make.”
The death toll increase came in spite of a sharp fall in the number of migrants attempting to make the journey to Europe from the Middle East and Africa last year, thanks in part to a deal struck between the EU and Turkey intended to slow migrant sea crossings.
Separately, Turkey’s interior minister Suleyman Soylu this week said his country would “blow the minds” of EU leaders by allowing 15,000 migrants per month to travel to Europe.
In an escalating war of words between Turkey and the EU following Ankara’s diplomatic spat with the Netherlands, Soylu told a crowd of supporters on Thursday that Turkish President Recep Erdogan was preparing to tear up the EU migrant deal.
In a direct message to European leaders, he said: “If you want, we could open the way for 15,000 refugees that we don’t send each month and blow the mind.”
Soylu spoke before Italian lawmakers revealed EU and African countries will meet next week to discuss how they can strengthen a separate deal designed to disrupt the activities of people smugglers in Libya.
Commenting on the power vacuum in the North African country, Italian interior minister Marco Minniti told reporters: “I’m not so naive as to not understand the situation there. But we cannot remain immobile and wait for the country to stabilise.”