This year is now the deadliest on record for migrants risking the increasingly dangerous voyage to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea, a migration organisation has said.
The past two and a half days have seen four separate shipwrecks which caused some 340 migrants to die or go missing, the International Organisation for Migration announced on Thursday.
The shipwrecks brings to over 4,500 the number of migrants who have died or disappeared crossing the Mediterranean so far this year.
The total compares with the 3,770 people reported dead or missing last year, which was itself a previous record.
The organisation said Thursday that the death toll is rising as smugglers force departures despite rough, winter seas.
Flavio Di Giacomo, Italy spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, told AP: “”What is shocking is the cruelty, the traffickers are forcing people to depart despite the prohibitive sea conditions. When they get to the beach, migrants who don’t want to go are forced to get on board, even with violence.”
Di Giacomo said traffickers care little if the migrants make it alive. He said: “Once you pay, you can’t go back.”
The count from the recent shipwrecks was based partly on the rescue overnight by Doctors without Borders of 27 migrants, who reported that more than 130 people had been on board their rubber dinghy when it sank. Seven bodies have been recovered.
In another incident, 15 survivors rescued by a mercantile ship about 30 miles from Libyan shores reported that some 135 people died when their smugglers’ boat capsized. Five bodies from that incident were recovered.
Another ship rescued 23 migrants, who reported that more than 120 people had been on board when they sank overnight Tuesday. Six bodies were recovered Tuesday in the fourth rescue, of 114 people.
The impossibility of recovering bodies of migrants lost at sea means that humanitarian organisations must rely on the accounts of survivors to tally the number believed drowned, as tens of thousands fleeing war, poverty and persecution seek to reach safety in Europe in smugglers’ boats.
The European Union’s Frontex border agency says a record 27,500 migrants were rescued and brought to Italy in October, the highest monthly total ever in the central Mediterranean and twice as many as in previous months.
So far this year, nearly 160,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, up 13 percent from last year.