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More people die headed to Med than in it: UNHCR

November 3, 2019

Even as a migrant rescue ship disembarks 88 asylum-seekers in an Italian port, a UN official says the Mediterranean isn't the most dangerous place for migrants. Many more die trying to reach the coast than in the sea.

African migrants sit in the sand (Getty Images(AFP/M. Turkia)
Image: Getty Images(AFP/M. Turkia

While the Mediterranean Sea remains a deadly route for migrants attempting to reach the European Union, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned that the African land journey to reach the Mediterranean coast remains far more lethal.

Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's special envoy for the central Mediterranean, said in an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag that around twice as many migrants die crossing Africa as crossing the Mediterranean.

Vincent Cochetel sits in front of a UNHCR sign
Cochetel's area of responsibility is North Africa and the MediterraneanImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/MTI/N. Bruzak

"We assume that at least two times as many people probably die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea as in the sea itself," he said. The actual number could "also be much higher," he said; exact numbers could not be provided. "But it is a tragedy." 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has identified transportation accidents, dehydration, violence, starvation and illness as the primary causes of death via land routes in 2018, the paper reported. 

Read more: African Union seeks 'durable solutions' to the continent's refugee crisis

Over 19,000 deaths since 2014

In October, the UNHCR reported that more than 1,000 individuals had drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean that month. The refugee agency registered a total of 2,277 dead or missing in 2018.

According to IOM, around 19,000 people died crossing the Mediterranean between 2014 and the end of October.

However, both agencies pointed out that a high number of unreported cases could make the totals significantly higher.

Read more: EU breaks promise of safe passage for 50,000 refugees

Rescued migrants dock in Italy

Also on Sunday, the migrant rescue boat Alan Kurdi, run by German charity Sea-Eye, docked in the Italian port of Taranto, allowing 88 migrants it had saved in the Mediterranean Sea to go ashore. It had entered Italian waters without authorization on Friday, citing approaching bad weather.

The Alan Kurdi boat sits in water
The Alan Kurdi rescue boat is run by the German organization Sea-EyeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Sea-Eye/F. Heinz

After an initial refusal, Italy gave permission on Friday for the ship to dock. Its turnaround came after several EU states agreed to take in the migrants onboard.

Hours after the Alan Kurdi docked, an Italian offshore supply vessel brought 151 migrants to Sicily. The vessel, the Asso Trenta, had rescued the migrants in the waters off Libya a day earlier. It was not immediately known if those rescued would stay in Italy or be sent to other EU countries. 

EU nations have squabbled over how to distribute asylum-seekers who arrive via the Mediterranean. Coastal nations such as Italy and Malta have accused other countries of not doing enough to help take in migrant sea arrivals and have pushed for an automatic quota system at the EU level. However, other nations, such as Finland and Austria, have rejected any binding criteria.

Read more: EU fails to cement agreement on migrants rescued at sea

cmb/sms (KNA, dpa)

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