Some 17 people have been found dead this week off Spain's coast, bringing the number of lives lost on the Mediterranean this year to over 2,000, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency reports. UNHCR said that some 100,000 asylum seekers and migrants have reached Europe so far this year, representing a return to pre-2014 levels.
However, the over 2,000 drownings so far reported mean that the rate of deaths, particularly in the Central Mediterranean, has escalated sharply. In September, one life was lost for every eight people who crossed. This was in large part due to substantially reduced search and rescue capacity, the agency said.
Concern for restrictions on NGOs
UNHCR in a statement expressed serious concern for ''the legal and logistical restrictions that have been placed on a number of NGOs wishing to conduct search and rescue (SAR) operations, including the Aquarius''. These restrictions ''have had the cumulative effect of the Central Mediterranean currently having no NGO vessels conducting SAR''.
''Should NGO rescue operations on the Mediterranean cease entirely we risk returning to the same dangerous context we saw after Italy's Mare Nostrum naval operation ended in 2015 and hundreds of people died in an incident on the central Mediterranean Sea'', the organization said.
UNHCR ''welcomes the rescue efforts of the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), as without them more lives would have been lost. Nonetheless, with the LCG now having assumed primary responsibility for search and rescue coordination in an area that extends to around 100 miles, the LCG needs further support. Any vessel with the capability to assist search and rescue operations should be allowed to come to the aid of those in need'', the UN agency noted.
'Don't bring rescued people back to Libya'
In the statement, UNHCR said it reiterated ''that people rescued in international waters (i.e. beyond the 12 nautical miles of the territorial waters of Libya) should not be brought back to Libya where conditions are not safe''.
''The largest proportion of deaths have been reported in crossings to Italy, which account for more than half of all deaths reported this year so far, despite Spain having become the primary destination of those newly arrived. More than 48, 000 people have arrived there by sea, compared to around 22,000 in Italy and 27,000 in Greece."
The UN agency concluded saying that "there is an urgent need to break away from the current impasses and ad-hoc boat-by-boat approaches on where to dock rescued passengers."