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Has the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean risen or fallen?


Pagella Politica, Italy

13 March 2019, Updated: 10 April 2019

On January 30th, Enrico Letta, former prime minister of Italy, criticised the immigration policy of the Italian government. “While four years ago one migrant in 40 crossing the Mediterranean died, now one in 8 dies,” he said on national television. Are these numbers correct? Approximately, yes. We investigated on the numbers and on the causes of this rise.

Deaths at sea have fallen

According to official data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2018 139,300 migrants arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean, a fall by around 20%, compared with 172,324 in 2017.

An even greater fall in arrivals by boat was recorded in Italy. In 2018, arrivals by sea numbered 23,370, dropping by more than 80% compared to 119,369 the previous year.

Along with this comes a corresponding fall in the total number of deaths at sea. Last year, in the whole Mediterranean, UNHCR recorded 2,275 deaths or disappearances, a fall of around 28% compared with 2017 (3,139).

The same goes for Italy: in 2018, 1,1311 people died on the Mediterranean route, less than half the number in 2017 (2,837).

But the mortality rate continues to rise

While it is true then that fewer migrants died last year than in the previous year, the number of deaths per arrivals has increased.

In 2018, if the above numbers of arrivals are placed in relation to deaths at sea for the whole Mediterranean, we see that one in every 54 migrants dies, while the previous year it was one in 61.

This figure is significantly worse when we focus on Italy, a country much more difficult to reach compared to Spain and Greece. Last year, in the Mediterranean, one migrant died for every 18 who survived the crossing, while in 2017 this figure was one for every 42.

And what was the situation like four years ago? In 2016, arrivals in Italy by sea were 181,436, with 4,578 dead or missing. Letta is therefore correct on the first figure he cites: in that period, one migrant died for every 40 arriving safely.

But why does the former prime minister say that today “one in 8 dies”, when we have seen that it is one for every 18? One possible answer is the evolution of the mortality rate, which has been in continuous growth since the beginning of 2018.

Letta does not in fact specify what he means by “today”, but is likely referring to the numbers recorded since the new Italian government, led by Giuseppe Conte, took power.

According to data from June 2018 (when the Conte government took power) to today (January 31st 2019), arrivals by sea in Italy numbered 10,095, of which 155 in the first month of the new year. For the same period, deaths at sea numbered more than 900 in the last months of 2018, and already around 150 in January 2019. In short, around 10,100 arrivals and around 1,050 deaths.

Essentially, with the government’s new deterrence policies, for every migrant death at sea, there are 10 who arrive safely, a slightly different figure to that cited by Letta (“today one in 8 dies”) but still worse than the average recorded for all of 2018.

The former prime minister may have become confused by statistics cited in an analysis published in October 2018 by the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). According to this data, during the government’s first four months (June to September 2018), deaths and disappearances increased, “finally reaching 8 per day” (a number equal to that cited by Letta, but which does not reference the mortality rate in relation to arrivals).

What are the causes?

This situation was also denounced recently by UNCHR, which on January 29th 2019 published an updated version of its report, Desperate Journeys: Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s borders.

“Although arrivals were markedly down compared to the large numbers who reached Italy each year between 2014-2017 or Greece in 2015, the journeys were as dangerous as ever,” explains the UN agency. “Although the overall number of deaths at sea in the Central Mediterranean more than halved in 2018 compared to the previous year, the rate of deaths per number of people attempting the journey rose sharply”.

This doesn’t just apply to Italy, as we have seen, but also Spain, where in 2018 the mortality rate at sea was four times greater than the previous year.

But what are the causes of this phenomenon? According to the government, particularly the minister of the interior Matteo Salvini, it is NGOs who are to blame, whose search and rescue operations are accused of incentivising departures (pull factor) and thus increasing the risk of deaths at sea.

There are studies disproving this claim. Research from 2017 published by Oxford University shows that in fact there is no correlation between the number of migrants saved by NGOs and the number of crossings. The same argument goes for the dead: their number does not grow when there is more NGO relief work being performed in the Mediterranean.

According to critics, however, humanitarian organisations maintain contact with human traffickers, who increasingly rely on – small and dilapidated – dinghies to send migrants to Europe, increasing the mortality risk.

No investigation, however, has ever proven collusion between NGOs and traffickers. Furthermore, as an analysis by ISPI researcher Matteo Villa shows, NGOs do not seem to influence the kinds of transport used to leave Libya. Four years ago – when 10% of rescues in the Mediterranean were performed by these organisations – 8 departures in 10 of those rescued were made on rubber dinghies, rather than small or large boats.

Besides all that, Sea Watch 3 is the only remaining NGO rescue ship along the main Mediterranean route.

This fact-check from Pagella Politica was originally produced for for AGI, an Italian news agency.

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