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Why the number of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean keeps rising

Pictures released on May 25 by the Italian navy show the shipwreck of an overcrowded boat filled with migrants off the Libyan coast.  (Marina Militare via AFP)

Over the past week, more than 1,000 migrants and refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to make it to Europe. Those numbers may well rise soon, after another large boat capsized near Crete on Friday. The enormous scale of these human losses is bringing renewed attention to the lingering migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

And it begs an uncomfortable question: How and why are these people dying?

The "how" part of that question can be found in various witness accounts. Late last month, the Italian navy released photographs that showed a crowded, top-heavy boat overturning, plunging all of its passengers into the sea; at least seven died, and hundreds more were injured. But not all the shipwrecks follow quite the same formula: As The Washington Post's Chico Harlan reported last month,  one motorless boat was being towed with a rope attached to a fishing boat. According to reports, the Sudanese captain of the fishing boat decided to cut that rope when the boat carrying the migrants began to take on water. That boat then sank, leaving 550 dead or missing. The captain was arrested on his arrival in Sicily.

The question of "why" is perhaps more complicated. Federico Fossi, a spokesman for the United Nations’ refugee agency, said last month that it was the "beginning of the peak season" for the Mediterranean migrant route, adding that it was "intense." With warmer weather, long boat journeys become easier, prompting more and more boats to make the attempt.

Overall, this year's summer surge isn't necessarily any different from last year's, nor the summer before that, Joel Millman, a press officer with the International Organization for Migration, explains. Figures from the IOM suggest that almost 2,500 people have died in the Mediterranean so far this year, compared to about 1,800 in the same period last year. Though a recent deal between the European Union and Turkey may have stemmed the number of migrants making the shorter, safer boat journey to Greece, it doesn't appear to have had a major effect on the route where most of the deaths take place — across the central Mediterranean between North Africa and Italy.

"The number of migrants who crossed the central Mediterranean route fit the profile of every year before," Millman said, adding that the composition of the migrants was also the same as previous years. What is unusual, Millman says, is the "deadly spike" in the last week. "It's remarkable," Millman says: Just the week before, IOM had put out a statement hopefully noting the lack of deaths on this route during the month of May.

The sudden rise in deaths could be due to a variety of factors, including simple bad luck. A number of experts have noted that smugglers, responding to higher demand from potential migrants and refugees, appear to be using extremely unsafe boats in a bid to maximize their profits. “Smugglers are packing people on boats that are barely seaworthy and that in many cases are not meant to make the crossing,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said at a briefing in Geneva this week.

Millman says that the shipwreck near Crete could well suggest that the island, the largest of the Greek islands and also its southernmost, could either be becoming a destination for boats from Turkey, or it may simply lie along a longer path toward Italy. On Wednesday, officials from the island told reporters that 113 mostly Afghan migrants had arrived on Crete, the first big arrival since the migrant crisis began.

The figures suggest that migrants and refugees face a considerable risk of death — perhaps as high as 1 chance in 23 — in these journeys along the route from North Africa to Italy, Spindler says. But without a political solution to the crisis — one that might present a safe, legal alternative to try and immigrate to the E.U. — there will remain plenty of migrants willing to put their lives at risk to make the journey and plenty of smugglers willing to take their money.

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