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Refugee death toll in Mediterranean Sea this year deadliest ever, says UN

The United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday that at least 3,800 refugees have died in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year in an attempt to reach Europe, making 2016 the deadliest year on record.

At least 3,800 dead in 2016 compared with 3,771 deaths last year

A refugee holds onto a rope during a rescue operation off Libya's Mediterranean coastline on Oct. 12, 2016. A growing number of people are attempting the treacherous sea journey from Libya or Egypt after the closure of the Balkan migrant trail route leading from Greece to western Europe. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations refugee agency said today that at least 3,800 refugees have died in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year in an attempt to reach Europe, making 2016 the deadliest year on record.

The Geneva-based agency had warned Tuesday that this year's death toll was likely to exceed the 3,771 deaths reported for the whole of 2015.

Scores of migrants have been drowning each week as the fragile and often overcrowded boats they travel on capsize or sink, the UN agency said. It blamed bad weather, flimsy boats and the fact that migrants fleeing war and poverty are increasingly taking the hazardous central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy in an attempt to reach Europe.

A deal between the European Union and Turkey largely closed off the eastern route earlier this year.

About half of the 327,800 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean this year did so using the central route from Libya to Italy, where about one in every 47 people dies. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

About half of the 327,800 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean this year did so using the central route, where about one in every 47 people dies. By comparison, the overall death rate for the whole Mediterranean last year — when more than a million people arrived in Europe — was one in 269 crossings.

The UN agency also said that smugglers have been changing their tactics, arranging the mass embarking of thousands of people at once.

30,000 refugees rescued from Mediterranean

CBC News foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed spent nine days on a rescue boat off the shore of Libya to document the migrant crisis, the events of which will be featured on a new episode of the fifth estate on Oct. 28.

Ayed told CBC's The Current that rescuers estimate they rescued about 16,000 migrants between June and September, and 30,000 for the whole year.

For nine days, the CBC's Nahlah Ayed chronicled the desperation of asylum seekers and the efforts of rescue workers, filming it all for a documentary for the CBC's Fifth Estate. Ayed shares the stories of what she saw and who she met. 13:08

When smugglers are filling boats with people, there's no guarantee families will be kept together, Ayed said.

Some people are even shoved on at gunpoint with bags over their heads, and are often misled about the conditions they will endure when they are travelling.

Ayed said her experience sitting with people on the rescue boat and listening to their stories made her realize how risky the situation was for these people so desperate to start a new life.

"I was struck by just how stunned people are when they get on the ship," she said. "They can't believe they survived."

With files from CBC's The Current

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