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More than 2,500 refugees dead, missing crossing Mediterranean in 2023

Asylum-seekers in a dingy boat headed for Italy are intercepted by authorities off the coast of Sfax, a Tunisian port city, October 4, 2022. (File photo by AFP)

More than 2,500 people have died or gone missing this year making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe in 2023, according to the UN refugee agency.

“By September 24, over 2,500 people were accounted as dead or missing in 2023 alone,” Ruven Menikdiwela, director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told the UN Security Council on Thursday, showing a sharp surge in the number of suspected casualties compared to 2022.

Menikdiwela added that out of the 186,000 asylum seekers who successfully crossed the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, 83 percent landed in Italy while the rest landed in Greece, Spain, Cyprus, and Malta, as well as other European countries.

She said the two North African countries of Tunisia and Libya were the main points of departure along the sea routes chosen by those seeking asylum in Europe.

Menikdiwela warned that the equally perilous land routes to Europe were also extremely dangerous and the UNHCR sees “no end in sight” to the lives lost not only at sea, but also on land.

“Lives are also lost on land, away from public attention,” Menikdiwela warned.

She said the asylum seekers “risk death and gross human rights violations at every step” of their journey – usually from conflict zones – in pursuit of a safe and secure life in Europe.

In Libya, where there are nearly 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR, “the conditions of thousands of refugees and migrants in both official and unofficial detention facilities… remains of grave concern,” Menikdiwela said.

She said more than 45,000 had tried to cross the Mediterranean from Libya and 102,000 people attempted to cross from Tunisia, a 260-percent increase compared to last year.

The UNHCR figures were similar to those presented by Par Liljert, director of the International Office for Migration (IOM).

“Recent IOM data demonstrates that from January to September 2023, more than 187,000 individuals crossed the Mediterranean in pursuit of a better future and the promise of safety,” Liljert told the Security Council.

“Tragically, during this same period, IOM recorded 2,778 deaths, with 2,093 of them occurring along the treacherous central Mediterranean route,” he said, referring to the most dangerous sea crossing.

“Yet, despite its clear dangers, in 2023, there has been an increase in arrivals to Greece along this route of over 300 percent, while the number of arrivals in Spain has remained steady, primarily through the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands as compared to the numbers recorded at the same time last year,” he said.

In the meantime, about 30 kilometers north of Sfax, El Amra has become a center for smugglers, metal boat builders, engine dealers, lookouts and intermediaries, all essential components in a network established to send asylum seekers to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Tunisian authorities and the border control function delegated to them by the European Union claim they are fighting against traffickers; however, Mediterranean crossings have increased over recent months.

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the European Union’s decision to release $135 million in migrant control assistance to Tunisia “terrible for human rights”.

Last week, the European Commission announced the payment, which came after a controversial deal it signed with the North African country in July.

The decision by the EU was made “despite an absence of any specific human rights guarantees for migrants and asylum seekers”, said HRW.

EU-bound asylum seekers, particularly those from Sub-Saharan countries, are in the "worst" situation, according to Nicholas Noe, a senior visiting fellow at Refugees International.

Italy's right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been pushing the EU to fulfill the deal brokered by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in July.

However, the deal risks making the EU “complicit in abuses” carried out by Tunisian authorities.

In the meantime, more than 10,000 refugees have arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent weeks.

Some experts have blamed the US-led Western countries war-mongering policies as an obstacle to world peace and the root of the perpetual wars in conflict zones across the globe.

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