An average of five migrants per day died on the Mediterranean Sea route to Europe in 2021, a report has found.
The analysis by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor described a “significant escalation” in drowning disasters on the way to Europe.
It derived the daily average from an estimate of 1,838 migrants who died or went missing in the Mediterranean — a figure similar to the 2,026 deaths or disappearances counted by a UN agency.
The worst incidents of 2021 included a pair of shipwrecks off the Libyan coast last month in which at least 163 people died in the space of two days.
The rise in deaths of about a quarter compared with 2020 was blamed in part on harassment of search and rescue workers, as well as alleged “pushbacks” by countries including Greece — although Athens denies involvement in such expulsions.
“Dirty pushbacks” on the short crossing from Turkey to Greece forced migrants into more dangerous routes in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, said another rights group, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.
More than 4,000 people died trying to reach Spain last year, many of them on the route to the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa. EU border guards observed a rise in longer-distance journeys from Turkey to Italy.
The rise in deaths tracked an increase in attempted crossings in 2021, as migrant traffic gathered pace again after initially falling during the pandemic. The number of crossings to Italy was far higher than in 2020.
The Rights Monitor’s report said humanitarian groups running search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean had been pestered by European authorities with fines, having their ships confiscated, and administrative hold-ups.
It cited the example of a bill passed in Greece last September which orders NGOs to work under closer oversight from coastguards or face fines.
“These tightening European policies portend a dramatic rise in the number of migrants and asylum seekers who are left to die away from the spotlight,” said researcher Michela Pugliese.
She said EU countries sometimes sought to expel new arrivals “without regard to the dangerous conditions that migrants and asylum seekers may be exposed to during the return process”.
UN inspectors last year criticised the treatment of refugees and migrants in Libya, after raids and arrests that resulted in the deaths of several people.
The EU faced migration headaches on multiple fronts in 2021, most notably in Belarus where thousands of mainly Iraqi migrants tried to enter the bloc via Poland or its neighbours.