UN: Risky sea crossings fuel sharp rise in migrant deaths

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BERLIN (AP) — Migrant deaths rose sharply last year, particularly in the Mediterranean, as smugglers made ever-riskier attempts to ferry asylum-seekers and refugees on increasingly unseaworthy vessels, according to United Nations statistics released Friday.

The International Organization for Migration documented 7,763 migrant deaths in 2016 worldwide, 27 percent more than the 6,107 recorded in 2015.

Two-thirds of the deaths took place in the Mediterranean Sea, where 5,098 people lost their lives trying to make the trip from North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East to Europe, according to information collected by the IOM's Data Analysis Center in Berlin.

The number of Mediterranean casualties last year was 35 percent higher than in 2015, despite more organized rescue efforts and fewer people trying to make the perilous journey. Most of the 2016 deaths were in the Central Mediterranean, where 4,581 migrants died attempting the longer trip from North Africa to Italy.

The migration organization cautioned that better monitoring and reporting might account for part of the increase in deaths in the Mediterranean. The area has become a greater focus as more asylum seekers streamed into Europe in recent years.

But evidence shows that along with several large shipwrecks, there also were more small fatal incidents as smugglers pursued strategies such as launching multiple boats simultaneously — making rescue operations more difficult — and taking to rough seas during the winter, the IOM said.

"This is not something completely new, but there is a reckless behavior on the part of smugglers who only want to increase their profits," Frank Laczko, director of the IOM's analysis center, said.

"There are huge sums of money to be made for each of those boats that cross the Mediterranean, so the more people you can cram into a boat, the more money you make," Laczko said.

He also said the situation in Libya, a key departure point, could have deteriorated to the point that people have become increasingly desperate to get out and thus willing to take "incredible risks," although noted that it is difficult to assess what is happening inside the country.

The report noted that the death count for the Mediterranean is considered a minimum figure, since it is thought that many shipwrecks go unreported.

The number of migrants attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean declined from more than 1 million in 2015 to 363,348 in 2016, largely due to the implementation of a deal between the European Union and Turkey designed to discourage sea crossings.

In North Africa itself, the report tallied 1,279 migrant deaths in 2016, up from 672 the previous year. In Western Africa, 169 migrant deaths were recorded, up from 84 in 2015. The Middle East saw 113 deaths, up from 32 the year before.

In other findings, the IOM said 400 migrants died along the U.S. border with Mexico in 2016, up from 348 in 2015. Bodies decompose quickly there because of the climate, making those who died difficult to identify.

Of the 143 cases in which identities were determined, most of the dead were Mexican nationals. Thirteen percent were Hondurans, 5 percent were Salvadoran, 18 percent other Central America and 4 percent South America, the report said.

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