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UN: Record 5,000 people died in Mediterranean in 2016

With at least 100 feared dead after two shipwrecks in the Strait of Sicily, the number of people who have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year has reached 5,000. This is the highest ever annual death toll.

Two shipwrecks in the Strait of Sicily on Thursday night brought the estimated death toll in the Mediterranean Sea to a record 5,000 people in 2016, the United Nations said on Friday.

"This is the worst annual death toll ever seen," said UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesman William Spindler.

The reasons for the increase in deaths include inadequate boats and harsh weather conditions.

Overcrowded rubber dinghies

At least 100 passengers are thought to have died in the two incidents on Thursday according to Flavio Di Giacomo, an International Organization for Migration spokesperson.

Survivors who were brought to the Sicilian city of Trapani by the Italian coastguard said the rubber dinghies they were traveling on capsized while trying to cross from Libya to Italy. Each boat was said to be carrying around 120 people.

Di Giacomo said that many of the survivors he had spoken to did not originally want to come to Europe.

"For many of them the destination country was Libya," he said. "But what they found there was abuse and violence. As a consequence, they decided to try the sea crossing, putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers who forced them to embark on vessels unfit to sail."

Humanitarian emergency "not over"

"This tragedy reminds us that the humanitarian emergency involving thousands of people dying while trying to flee Libya is not over,” said Di Giacomo. "In 2016 the number of arrivals by sea in Italy has kept growing, but the number of migrants dying is up dramatically."

Some 3,777 people are believed to have drowned at sea while trying to reach Europe in all of 2015, according to the IOM.

The UNHCR has appealed to national governments to open up more legal pathways for admitting migrants.

rls/sms (Reuters/IOM)

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