More than 300,000 refugees and migrants have used the dangerous sea route across the Mediterranean so far this year with almost 200,000 of them landing in Greece and a further 110,000 in Italy, according to a new UNHCR report released Friday.
The UN refugee agency said this represents a large increase from the 219,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean during the whole of 2014.
“At the same time, some 2,500 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died or gone missing this year, trying to reach Europe. This death toll does not include yesterday’s tragedy off Libya where numbers of deaths are still unconfirmed,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a press briefing in Geneva, adding that in the last few days even more people had lost their lives in three separate incidents.
Last year some 3,500 people died or were reported missing in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Libyan Coast Guard carried two rescue operations on Thursday morning, seven miles off the port town of Zwara. Two boats carrying an approximate total of 500 refugees and migrants were intercepted and survivors taken to shore in Libya.
“An estimated 200 people are still missing and feared dead. A still undetermined number of bodies were recovered and taken to shore. The Libyan Red Crescent has been helping with the collection of the bodies,” Fleming said.
On Wednesday, rescuers coming to the aid of another boat off the Libyan coast found 51 people dead from suffocation in the hold.
“According to survivors, smugglers were charging people money for allowing them to come out of the hold in order to breathe,” Fleming said.
Additionally, Fleming said that last week the bodies of 49 persons were found in the hold of another boat in a similar, but separate incident. They are thought to have died after inhaling poisonous fumes.
Many of the people arriving by sea in southern Europe, particularly in Greece, come from countries affected by violence and conflict, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the UNHCR, they are in need of international protection and they are often physically exhausted and psychologically traumatized.