This picture released on May 25 by the Italian navy shows the shipwreck of an overcrowded boat of migrants off the Libyan coast. (Marina Militare/AFP/Getty Images)

This year is turning out to be one of the deadliest for asylum-seekers who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Halfway into the year, the number of dead has already reached about 2,800, compared to 1,800 during the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Last month, more than 1,000 migrants drowned as several ships sank.

The reasons for the rising death toll are complicated. There’s no notable increase this year in the number of migrants on one of the main routes across the Mediterranean — from North Africa to Italy. In both years, more migrants died as the weather became warmer and the seas calmed, fueling hopes of a safer voyage.

Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the IOM in Italy, pointed to the type of boats used to transport the migrants as one potential reason for the increase in deaths. In late May, for example, a boat without an engine capsized as it was being tugged by another vessel. More than 500 people were killed.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen something like it,” Di Giacomo said, adding that he is witnessing migrants being packed onto wooden boats that are unfit for navigation. Previously, the most common vessels utilized were rubber dinghies.

Younger and more unscrupulous smugglers have resorted to jamming increasing numbers of people into the extremely unsafe boats.

“There is competition between smugglers groups,” he said. “There are young people who are trying to become smugglers and gain money that way.”

Many migrants are making the journey on larger wooden vessels, which can hold more people. Two shipwrecks on these bigger boats can result in as many as 800 deaths, Di Giacomo said.

About 2,500 migrants — mostly traveling from Eritrea, Nigeria, Gambia and Somalia — already have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy. Speaking at a briefing in Geneva several weeks ago, William Spindler, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said refugees have a 1-in-23 chance of dying on the North Africa-Italy route.

The journey is longer and more treacherous than the eastern Mediterranean crossing, which takes migrants from Turkey to Greece. Still, a few hundred migrants have died on the eastern route. The number of asylum-seekers on that route has plummeted following an agreement between Turkey and the European Union to bar refugees from making the trip.  So far, though, there is no sign that asylum-seekers are shifting to the central Mediterranean crossing.

Most of those traveling from Turkey to Greece are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here's a breakdown of what's happening in the Mediterranean:

  • More than 200,000 refugees traveled by sea this year; about 7,000 traveled by land.
  • About 150,000 arrived in Greece; about 50,000 arrived in Italy.
  • The top nationalities arriving in Italy are from Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Ivory Coast and Gambia. The top nationalities arrive in Greece are from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
  • Last year, 475,000 Syrians and 205,000 Afghans traveled to Greece. Close to 75,000 Syrians and 40,000 Afghans have made the journey since May this year.
  • Last year, 12,000 Eritreans and 5,000 Nigerians traveled to Italy; Close to 6,000 Eritreans and 6,000 Nigerians have made the journey since May this year.
  • Other than drowning, most other known causes of death in the Mediterranean include asphyxiation, boat fires, and exposure or hypothermia   


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