The International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Missing Migrants Project documented 441 migrant deaths in the Central Mediterranean in the first quarter of 2023, the highest on record since 2017.
The increasing loss of life on the world’s most dangerous maritime crossing comes amidst reports of delays in State-led rescue responses and hindrance to the operations of NGO search and rescue (SaR) vessels in the central Mediterranean.
“The persisting humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean is intolerable,” said IOM Director General, António Vitorino. “With more than 20,000 deaths recorded on this route since 2014, I fear that these deaths have been normalized. States must respond. Delays and gaps in State-led SAR are costing human lives.”
Delays in State-led rescues on the Central Mediterranean route were a factor in at least six incidents this year leading to the deaths of at least 127 people. The complete absence of response to a seventh case claimed the lives of at least 73 migrants.
Recently, NGO-led SAR efforts have been markedly diminished.
On 25 March, the Libyan Coast Guard fired shots in the air as NGO rescue ship Ocean Viking was responding to a report of a rubber boat in distress. Separately, on Sunday, 26 March, another vessel, the Louise Michel, was detained in Italy after rescuing 180 people at sea, echoing an earlier case in which the Geo Barents was detained in February and subsequently released.
Over the Easter weekend, 3,000 migrants reached Italy, bringing the total number of arrivals so far this year to 31,192 people.
A vessel carrying roughly 800 people on board was rescued on Tuesday, 11 April, more than 200 kilometers southeast of Sicily by the Italian Coast Guard with the assistance of a commercial vessel. Another ship with around 400 migrants was reportedly adrift between Italy and Malta for two days before being reached by the Italian Coast. Not all migrants from these ships have reached safety and disembarked in Italy yet.
“Saving lives at sea is a legal obligation for States,” said Vitorino. “We need to see proactive State-led coordination in search and rescue efforts. Guided by the spirit of responsibility-sharing and solidarity, we call on States to work together and work to reduce loss of life along migration routes.”
The 441 deaths documented in the first three months of the year are likely an undercount of the true number of lives lost in the Central Mediterranean. The Missing Migrants Project is also investigating several reports of invisible shipwrecks- cases in which boats are reported missing, where there are no records of survivors- remains or SAR operations.
The fates of more than 300 people aboard those vessels remain unclear.
The troubling situation in the Central Mediterranean reinforces the need for dedicated, predictable State-led SAR and disembarkation that puts an end to the ad hoc response that has characterized operations since the end of Operation Mare Nostrum in 2014. State efforts to save lives must include supporting the efforts of NGO actors to provide lifesaving assistance, and ending the criminalization, obstruction and deterrence of the efforts of those who provide such assistance. All maritime vessels, including commercial ships, have a legal obligation to provide rescue to boats in distress.
IOM also calls for further concerted action to dismantle criminal smuggling networks and to prosecute those responsible for profiting from the desperation of migrants and refugees by facilitating dangerous journeys.
Missing Migrants Project is a flagship initiative of the Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) within IOM’s Global Data Institute in Berlin. The latest Missing Migrants Project data on the Mediterranean can be found at missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean.