An operation by Italian Coast Guard divers to recover cadavers found after the November 23, 2019 shipwreck off Lampedusa |  Photo: ANSA/COAST GUARD
An operation by Italian Coast Guard divers to recover cadavers found after the November 23, 2019 shipwreck off Lampedusa | Photo: ANSA/COAST GUARD

The International Organization for Migration said measures enacted by governments against the spread of the coronavirus, as well as the drop in the presence of search-and-rescue ships in the Mediterranean, are sparking concern over "invisible" migrant shipwrecks.

Measures enacted by governments in response to Covid-19 -- including the closure of ports, delays in disembarkations, and the reduced presence of search-and-rescue ships on the increasingly busy central Mediterranean route -- are raising serious concerns over the fate of ships in danger and so-called "invisible shipwrecks", said the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in a statement

"We are witnessing a consistent increase in the number of ships at sea that we are aware of, and the absence of state and NGO search-and-rescue operations makes it difficult to know everything that is happening at sea," said Frank Laczko, director of IOM's Global Migration Data and Analysis Center (GMDAC). 

"The response to Covid-19 has had a decisive impact on our ability to collect precise data. The central Mediterranean route remains the most dangerous maritime migration route in the world, and, in the current context, the risk has grown for invisible shipwrecks far from the sight of the international community," Laczko said. 

Flows in the central Mediterranean 

"Taking advantage of concerns over public health to strengthen checks at its borders, the Maltese and Italian governments have introduced further restrictions on disembarkations in their ports," said IOM. 

"However, migrants continue to leave the Libyan coasts, pushed by the deteriorating humanitarian situation and security in the country," it said. 

Based on IOM data, in April 2020, 1,132 people attempted the crossing from North Africa towards Italy and Malta. That figure is more than double the 498 people who made the journey in the same period in 2019. 

During the response to Covid-19, the number of victims on the central Mediterranean route has decreased in 2020 to 18 deaths and 13 deaths in March and April, respectively, compared to 56 and 52 in the same months of last year. 

"Our feeling is that this doesn't accurately reflect the current situation," Laczko said. 

The situation in the eastern and western Mediterranean 

IOM highlighted that migration along the other two Mediterranean routes has also been influenced in different ways by the COVID-19 restrictions. 

In the eastern Mediterranean, the number of people who attempted the crossing -- including those who arrived in Greece and those intercepted at sea and returned to Turkey -- went down to 292 in April 2020. That represents a strong drop on March, when 4,905 people attempted the crossing. 

It is likely that containment measures put in place by Turkey -- including mandatory quarantine, travel bans, and restrictions on movement -- combined with increased patrols by Greek authorities, reduced mobility through the Aegean. 

Overall arrivals in Spain have also gone down since the start of the pandemic. A total of 1,098 people arrived by land and sea during the six weeks between the start of the lockdown in Spain and April 30. That represents a 45% drop on the same period last year, when a total of 1,998 people were registered. 
 

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