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Mediterranean Death Rate Is Highest Since 2015 Migration Crisis

LONDON — The sea journey between North Africa and Italy is now deadlier than at any point since the peak of the European migration crisis in 2015, even as unauthorized migration along the route has fallen to its lowest level in the same period, according to data released on Monday by the United Nations.

For every 18 migrants who reached Italy by boat during the first seven months of 2018, one person drowned attempting that voyage. The toll is nearly triple the death rate during the period in 2015, and roughly double the rate in 2016, when a record number of migrants landed without authorization in Italy, which for most of the 21st century has been the main port of entry for people hoping to reach Europe by boat.

The United Nations’ announcement was made against a backdrop of heightened political and social tension across Europe, where migration has helped strengthen local economies by increasing consumer demand while also creating additional pressure on state institutions and stoking the popularity of far-right parties and causes. Far-right politicians now share power in Italy and Austria, and have polled unusually well in Sweden and Germany, where thousands of far-right sympathizers rallied in the eastern town of Chemnitz this week in protest over immigration.

The rising Mediterranean death rate is largely due to a spike in shipwrecks that occurred after Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, barred most rescue vessels from bringing migrants to Italian ports in June, according to a separate analysis by Matteo Villa, a migration specialist at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a research group in Rome. Around 1,600 migrants died in the Mediterranean in the first seven months of this year.

The arrival rate, which had already plummeted before Mr. Salvini entered office in May because of measures taken by his predecessor, has fallen only slightly under the new minister. An average of 2,200 people have arrived in Italy in each of the three months since Mr. Salvini’s appointment, compared with an average of 2,700 during the three months that preceded it.

That higher rate was around 80 percent below the levels during the peak of the crisis.

Unauthorized migration between Libya and Italy fell markedly last summer, thanks to controversial negotiations between Marco Minniti, Mr. Salvini’s predecessor, and Libyan militias that control the southern Mediterranean smuggling trade. But the death rate did not rise, largely because of the continued presence off the Libyan coast of private rescue boats run by nongovernmental organizations.

Mr. Minniti’s government introduced protocols that deterred those boats from working close to the Libyan coast, and empowered the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return more migrants to Libya. But the private boats could still deliver rescued migrants to Italian ports.

That changed in June, days after Mr. Salvini’s appointment, when a boat run by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranean was forced to sail to Spain after being denied entry to ports in Sicily. Merchant vessels and Italian Navy ships have since also been refused permission to disembark rescued migrants in Italy.

This has left rescue responsibilities almost solely to the Libyan Coast Guard, an informal alliance of badly resourced and poorly trained sailors drawn from competing Libyan militias.

“A major factor contributing to the increased death rate is the decreased search and rescue capacity off the Libyan coast this year compared to the same period last year,” the United Nations refugee agency said in its report.

Mr. Villa described the situation as “a cautionary tale” for European officials who seek to justify countermigration measures with an argument that they are trying to save lives by stopping the smuggling trade.

“If your objective is to reduce the death rate, then you should be very wary of delegating rescue to the Libyan Coast Guard, because they are clearly unable to deal with levels of more than 3,000 departures per month,” Mr. Villa said.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Rising Migrant Death Rate in Mediterranean. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source: NYT > World

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