The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said today that the Mediterranean is the most deadly stretch of water for refugees, with more than 1,500 people having drowned or gone missing while attempting to cross it last year.
"This makes 2011 the deadliest year for this region since UNHCR started to record these statistics in 2006. The previous high was in 2007 when 630 people were reported dead or missing."
It said that last year was also a record in terms of the massive number of arrivals in Europe via the Mediterranean, with more than 58,000 people arriving .The previous high was in 2008 when 54,000 people reached Greece, Italy and Malta.
During 2009 and 2010, border control measures sharply reduced arrivals in Europe. The frequency of boat arrivals increased in early 2011 as the regimes in Tunisia and Libya collapsed.
"Our teams in Greece, Italy, Libya and Malta, warn that the actual number of deaths at sea may be even higher. Our estimates are based on interviews with people who reached Europe on boats, telephone calls and e-mails from relatives, as well as reports from Libya and Tunisia from survivors whose boats either sank or were in distress in the early stages of the journey," UNHCR said.
It said survivors had recounted harrowing stories of being forced onboard by armed guards, particularly during April and May in Libya. The actual journey took place on unseaworthy vessels with refugee and migrant passengers often forced into having to skipper boats themselves.
In addition, some survivors told UNHCR that fellow passengers beat and tortured them. Judicial investigations are ongoing in Italy following these reports.
The majority of last year's arrivals by sea landed in Italy (56,000,of whom 28,000 were Tunisian) while Malta and Greece received 1,574 and1,030 respectively. The vast majority arrived in the first half of the year.
Most were migrants, not asylum-seekers. Only three boats landed from mid-August to the end of the year. In addition, according to Greek government figures, some 55,000 irregular migrants crossed the Greek-Turkish land border at Evros.
The UNHCR said said it was also concerned that since the beginning of 2012, despite poor weather conditions, three boats attempted this perilous journey from Libya, with one going missing at sea. This boat, carrying at least 55 people raised the alarm on 14 January, warning of engine failure. Libyan coast guards informed UNHCR that 15 dead bodies, all identified as Somali, were found washed up on the beaches last week, including 12 women, two men and a baby girl.
On Sunday, three more bodies were recovered. The other two boats that made it to Malta and Italy in January required rescue. The first rescue of 72 Somali nationals by the Italian coastguard took place on 13 January.
Those rescued included a pregnant womanand 29 children. The second boat was rescued by the Maltese Armed Forces on 15 January with the support of the US Navy and a commercial vessel. In total 68people were rescued from a dinghy found drifting some 56 nautical miles from Malta. A baby girl was born on one of the rescue vessels. Another woman reported a miscarriage during the voyage.
The UNHCR said it welcomed the ongoing efforts of the Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities to rescue boats in distress in the Mediterranean.