Migrant arrivals to Europe lower but deaths remain high

BARCELONA, SPAIN (AP) — The number of migrants and asylum-seekers who reached Europe in 2020 is the lowest it has been in the past decade, according to a report released on Friday by the United Nations (UN) migration agency. But deaths and disappearances on sea routes remain alarmingly high with only a small fraction of bodies recovered and victims identified.

Of the 93,000 people who entered Europe irregularly last year, roughly 92 per cent did so via the Western, Central and Eastern Mediterranean Sea, as well as through the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa to Spain’s Canary Islands, often on unseaworthy boats.

Arrivals in the Canaries, considered part of the Schengen area, increased by 750 per cent last year. The numbers had already picked up before the pandemic following tougher border controls and interceptions on the Mediterranean by North African countries, but COVID-19 seems to have “acted as a multiplier of existing factors motivating migration on this route”, the report said.

It added that many migrants previously worked in sectors such as fishing and agriculture that have suffered greatly from the economic consequences of the pandemic.

The sea routes are lethal. The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants Project has confirmed the death or disappearances of nearly 2,300 people last year. This number is higher than in 2019 when 2,095 victims were recorded and slightly lower than in 2018 which had 2,344.

Refugees and migrants being rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms. PHOTO: AP

The Central Mediterranean north of Libya saw 984 people perish in 2020. Meanwhile, on the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands, at least 849 victims were recorded — more than four times as many as in any of the previous six years, according to the report, Maritime Migration to Europe: Focus on the Overseas Route to the Canary Islands.

The deaths of 300 more Europe-bound asylum-seekers and migrants on the two sea passages have already been documented this year, the IOM said. In the latest incident in the Canaries, at least three people died on Friday after a crowded migrant boat capsized south of the island of Tenerife. Spanish rescuers pulled 41 people from the water with the help of a nearby fishing vessel, and also recovered the bodies of two women and a man, said Spain’s Maritime Rescue Service.

The spokesman told AP that rescuers were looking for more survivors in the ocean. IOM admits its data is incomplete. So-called “invisible shipwrecks”, when entire boats disappear and leave no survivors, are especially concerning.

Not included in the report’s death toll for last year are nine cases of invisible shipwrecks reported in the Atlantic and Mediterranean last year with hundreds of additional potential victims, according to an IOM report.

“Such cases are extremely difficult to detect, let alone verify, and are yet another indication that the true number of deaths on maritime routes to Europe is far higher than indicated by the available data.”