More than 3,400 people have died in the Mediterranean this year trying to reach Europe, the UN’s refugee agency said Wednesday, urging governments to take more action to save lives.
The UNHCR said at least 348,000 people, including a growing number of asylum seekers, had taken to the seas worldwide since the beginning of the year.
"Europe, facing conflicts to its south (Libya), east (Ukraine) and south-east (Syria/Iraq) is seeing the largest number of sea arrivals," the agency said.
At least 207,000 people have made the risky Mediterranean sea crossing since January, almost three times the previous high of 70,000 during the Libyan civil war in 2011, according to the UNHCR.
Of these, a record 3,419 died, out of a total of 4,272 reported deaths worldwide on migrant vessels this year. Most set off from Libya bound for Italy and Malta, looking for work or, increasingly, asylum, the agency said.
The figures were released at the start of a two-day meeting in Geneva hosted by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres on how to protect people who take to the sea to escape persecution, war, instability and poverty.
Ahead of the talks involving governments, UN agencies and NGOs, Guterres warned that many states seem increasingly preoccupied with securing their own borders rather than preventing the loss of life.
"This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars," Guterres said.
"Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage."
For many making the journey, Italy is the first port of call and the country has rescued more than 150,000 people from rickety boats already this year. Last week, navy and coastguard boats found an inflatable dinghy adrift of the island of Lampedusa. They rescued 75 migrants and recovered the bodies of 17 who died from hypothermia and dehydration.
But Italy recently ended its search-and-rescue operation after its EU partners refused to help fund it, with critics arguing that saving the migrants was simply encouraging them to try their luck.
Opposing the view, Guterres said, "You can't stop a person who is fleeing for their life by deterrence.”
“The real root causes have to be addressed, and this means looking at why people are fleeing, what prevents them from seeking asylum by safer means, and what can be done to crack down on the criminal networks who prosper from this," he said.