Last year, 116,647 migrants and refugees reached European shores — the smallest number to cross the Mediterranean since the migration surge in 2015, when more than 1 million people arrived.
Despite the drop in arrivals by sea, new data released Wednesday by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows that the Mediterranean crossing remained extremely deadly. At least 2,275 people died or went missing as they tried to cross to Europe in 2018, leading to an average of six deaths a day.
There were at least 10 instances in 2018 where 50 or more people drowned at a time, UNHCR said.
“The toll was particularly heavy in the Western Mediterranean, on the route to Spain, where the number of deaths almost quadrupled in 2018 over the previous year,” the report said. The increase in the rate of deaths was “the result of the big reduction in overall search and rescue capacity. . . . These deaths came at a time when NGOs faced further restrictions on their activities."
Migrants' destinations in Europe changed dramatically last year: Arrivals in Spain nearly doubled from the year before, according to the International Organization for Migration. Those changes were largely influenced by Italy’s crackdown on migrant arrivals there, which redirected migration patterns toward Spain.
On the Central Mediterranean route, where the overall number of deaths fell compared with 2017, the rate of deaths increased. For boats coming from Libya, there was one death for every 14 people who arrived in Europe safely, the report said. The ratio had been one death for every 38 arrivals in 2017.
For all Mediterranean sea arrivals, the death rate has steadily increased, from one death per 269 arrivals in 2015 to one death per 51 arrivals last year.
Fewer migrants reached Europe than in previous years in part because the Libyan coast guard ramped up its efforts to intervene and stop migrant ships at sea, often returning them to detention centers in Libya where they were held “in appalling conditions,” the report said.
On a number of occasions, migrants and refugees were left in limbo at sea as E.U. member states debated who would accept them.
With the number of arrivals continuing to fall, Pascale Moreau, director of UNHCR’s Europe bureau, argued in September that the situation was “no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives.”