According to preliminary data by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), from May 25 to May 31, approximately 1,083 refugees were reportedly dead or missing in nine separate incidents while en route to Europe. The majority of these deaths have occurred in the so called “Central Mediterranean route”. Many refugees embark on unsuitable vessels from Libya or Tunisia with the hope of reaching Italian or Maltese coasts. Moreover, the IOM states that the Central Mediterranean route is the deadliest and has the lowest body recovery count (only 8.8% compared to 80% in Eastern Mediterranean):
This route has seen 27% of sea arrivals to Europe since the beginning of 2014, but accounts for 85% of [refugee] deaths in the Mediterranean during the same period. For every fifty [refugees] who have attempted the Central Mediterranean crossing since 2014, one has died en route.
In Libya the situation continues to worsen. The western-backed Government of National Accord is still struggling to bring together different factions and allegiances under a single state authority, especially among the House of Representatives based in Tobruk and General Haftar’s Libyan National Army in the east. As such, the country continues to be split with two major competing governments and Islamic State affiliates continue to hold ground in the central coast of Libya despite advances of Libyan forces on both sides. During the month of May, United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has documented 70 civilian casualties in Libya: 24 deaths and 46 injuries.
Media reports have also stated that some immigration detention centres in Libya have already exceeded there maximum capacity and that hundreds, or even thousands more, are expected in the following weeks. A spokesperson of the Libyan Navy claimed that the European Union’s “Operation Sophia”, also known as EUNAVFOR Med, is acting as a pull factor for migratory flows in the Central Mediterranean.
Since the start of Operation Sophia, we have had much greater numbers of [refugees] trying to go to Europe because they know that the boats are operating in the sea, so they don’t have to make it all the way to Italy. All [refugees’ ] boats have satellite phones and GPS. Before, they had to wait until they reached Italian waters to make a distress call, but now they start making SOS calls as soon as they leave Libyan territorial waters.
However, data provided by the UNHCR does not show yet an upward trend in migratory flows within the Central Mediterranean as compared to last year. Over 19,000 refugees arrived by sea to Italy during May 2016 which is in fact slightly below the numbers recorded in the same time period last year. On the other hand, Greece is consolidating a downward trend in refugee arrivals by sea with only 1,465 recorded arrivals in May. These lower figures are partly due to the EU-Turkey agreement, which allows for the return of certain irregular refugees and came into force on 20th March 2016. With the partial closure of the Eastern Mediterranean route, migratory flows may have been partially stemmed (especially from the Middle East) but could pick up again in the Central and Western routes during the summer months as navigation generally becomes easier.