With warm weather and bigger boats refugee fatalities in the Mediterranean are skyrocketing

Moments before capsizing.
Moments before capsizing.
Image: Marina Militare/Handout via Reuters
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As the weather in Europe warms up after the cold winter months, refugees and migrants from Africa are resuming their dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean. With the increased traffic, deaths at sea have skyrocketed in May, with the end of the month marking one of the deadliest periods of the recent migration crisis.

In the first five months of 2016, a staggering 204,311 refugees and migrants have arrived to Europe by sea, compared to 91,860 in the same period last year. Up until the last week of May, fatalities during the period were lower than last year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, feeling “hopeful” about the downward trend. With at least 1,000 deaths at the end of the month, deaths at sea in the first five months of the year increased by an unexpected 34% compared to 2015.

A bulk of that was made up by three incidents on the route from Libya to Italy, with the vast majority of victims coming from sub-Saharan Africa. Europe has largely shut down the route migrants and refugees were taking through Greece, but there is no evidence yet that the increased fatalities stem from that decision, according to the IOM. The longer, more dangerous route to Italy is used by the same set of migrants and refugees–Nigerians, Gambians, Somalis–as it was last year.

When rescuers see Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans using the Italy-Libya route, “that’s when we’ll see the evidence,” said Joel Millman, spokesperson for IOM. “We know that this certainly could shift, but it wouldn’t have happened this quickly.”

The image of a drowned baby whose body had been recovered by rescuers has become a symbol of this deadly surge, which happened despite a crackdown on smuggling operations.

Federico Soda, the head of IOM’s coordination efforts in the Mediterranean said in a statement that the increase in the number of arrivals–and deaths–is in part a result of warmer weather, but also the use of larger wooden boats, that can board many more people, more than 700, than the rubber dinghies smugglers used beforehand, which fit about 100-120.

“This also explains the increase in the number of migrants dead or missing: one accident can result in hundreds of fatalities,” Soda said.