UN: Mediterranean death toll tops record 5,000 this year

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GENEVA (AP) — Around 100 people are missing and feared dead after two shipwrecks off Italy, raising the estimated death toll among migrants on the Mediterranean this year to at least 5,000 — a new annual record, U.N. agencies said Friday.

Deaths linked to Mediterranean crossings by migrants mostly seeking economic opportunity or relative peace in Europe have spiked in 2016. Last year, over a million people crossed the sea — mostly from Turkey to Greece — with 3,771 deaths recorded. But this year, about 360,000 people have successfully crossed, most between Libya and Italy, with far more deadly results.

"The latest information we have is that yesterday, in two incidents, as many as 100 people lost their lives," said William Spindler, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.

"The number of people who have lost their lives on the Mediterranean this year has now passed 5,000," he added. "That means that on average, 14 people have died every single day this year in the Mediterranean trying to find safety or a better life or safety in Europe."

Citing survivors' accounts, spokesman Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration said that at least 57 people were feared dead following the capsizing Thursday of a rubber dinghy carrying between 120 and 140 people. He said eight bodies had been recovered in that area. Another 40 people were feared dead from another dinghy also carrying about 120 people.

Millman said he did not immediately have further details about the possible causes of the shipwrecks.

UNHCR said the Italian coast guard carried out a total of four rescue operations in the central Mediterranean on Thursday, including the rescue of about 175 people from another dinghy and a wooden boat. The coast guard helped disembark the rescued survivors at the western Sicilian town of Trapani.

Among possible causes for the increase in deaths on the Mediterranean this year, the refugee agency cited a worsening quality of vessels used, as well as tactics used by smugglers to prevent detection by authorities — such as sending many boats out at the same time, which makes the work of rescuers harder.

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