Two shipwrecks push Mediterranean migrant deaths to new record

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Migrants wait to disembark from a vessel in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, Italy, December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX2V3S7

Migrants wait to disembark from a vessel in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, Italy, Dec. 14, 2016. The number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean dropped in 2016, but over a thousand more people died trying. Photo by REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

This year’s death toll for migrants who perished in the Mediterranean is estimated to be at least 5,000, after 100 people went missing and believed dead in two shipwrecks Thursday near Italy, U.N. agencies announced Friday.

About 360,000 people successfully crossed the sea — mostly from Libya to Italy — in 2016, way down from the number who attempted in 2015, according to the Associated Press. But with 100 people believed dead in just one day and similar wrecks occurring regularly, the death toll this year surpassed 2015’s total of 3,800 fatalities in October and quickly reached a new record.

“That means that on average, 14 people have died every single day this year in the Mediterranean trying to find safety or a better life or safety in Europe,” said William Spindler, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.

Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said survivors’ stories told of at least 57 feared dead from a rubber dinghy holding around 130 people, and another 40 possibly dead in a dinghy carrying 120 people, the AP reported. Eight bodies were recovered.

The Italian coast guard conducted four rescue missions Thursday, Reuters reported. Survivors were brought to Trapani in Sicily.

The UN has said low-quality vessels combined with bad weather and overcrowding are responsible for the rise in death tolls.

“These (reasons also) include sending large numbers of embarkations simultaneously, which makes the work of rescuers more difficult,” said Spindler.

Most migrants come to Italy and Greece from Nigeria, Libya and other African countries, and rescue services continue to be strained.  

“Addressing this situation while ensuring functioning asylum systems remains a policy challenge for many countries, but measures to save lives are available and UNHCR urges all countries to do more in this regard,” Spindler told journalists in October.

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