Africa: Mediterranean Deaths Escalate as Sea , Rescue Missions Stall

The U.N. refugee agency reports a growing number of refugees and migrants are dying on the Mediterranean Sea crossing to Europe because non-governmental organizations are being prevented from conducting search and rescue missions.

The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 2,000 refugees and migrants have lost their lives on the Mediterranean this year. It says the number of drownings has escalated sharply, mainly in the central Mediterranean.

In September, it notes one of every eight people making the dangerous journey toward Italy died.

UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxlie blames the increasing loss of life largely on the substantially reduced search and rescue operations.

“In light of this, UNHCR continues to be very concerned about the legal and logistical restrictions that have been placed on a number of NGOs wishing to conduct search and rescue operations, including the Aquarius," he said. "These have had the cumulative effect of the central Mediterranean currently having no NGO vessels conducting search and rescue.”

Yaxlie says the Libyan Coast Guard has assumed primary responsibility for search and rescue missions within its territorial waters. He says these efforts have saved many lives. While welcoming that, he tells VOA the UNHCR is concerned people who are rescued are being taken back to Libya where conditions are not safe.

“I think it has been well documented that for those that are returned to Libya, they face the routine use of being held in detention. And, there have been reports of various human rights violations. So, we are advocating to states and particularly to resettlement countries to assist us with evacuating people out of those places.”

The UNHCR says any vessel that has the capability to assist search and rescue operations should be allowed to come to the aid of those in need. To do otherwise, it warns, will doom many people fleeing persecution, violence, and poverty to death.

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