Fewer migrants attempted the perilous Mediterranean crossing toward Europe last year, leading to a drop in migrant deaths at sea, as patterns of migration shifted amid growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
But the route remains as deadly as ever, with a slight rise in the number of deaths per migrant who made the crossing.
The number of migrants who died trying to reach the shores of southern European countries fell to 2,262 last year, from over 3,000 in 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That marks the closest that statistic has come to falling back to pre-2014 levels.
The total number of migrants arriving in Europe by sea fell by a third in 2018, to just under 115,000 people, according to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees.
Most of the migrants left Guinea and Morocco, followed by Mali, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
More than half of all migrants arrived in Spain, while less than a quarter went to Italy. Those numbers mark a striking shift from 2017, when the bulk of migrants – nearly 120,000 – landed in Italy, while a fraction of that reached Spain.
Experts point to Italy’s efforts to close off the central Mediterranean route from North Africa, as Lucia Benavides reports for NPR. Italy made a controversial deal with Libya to help Libyan coast guards intercept migrants leaving its shores. And Italian officials have launched large-scale surveillance of search-and-rescue boats, according to PRI’s GlobalPost Investigations.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has refused to let migrant rescue vessels dock in Italian ports, a mark of the country’s rising populist and anti-immigrant sentiment. Last month, when the United Nations adopted a nonbinding compact to make migration more humane, Italy was among several European countries that refused to adopt the agreement.
Just before the new year, a rescue ship carrying more than 300 African migrants arrived at Spain’s port of Algeciras, in the southern province of Andalusia, after Malta and Italy turned the ship away, according to Voice of America.
Spain has struggled to accommodate the influx of migrants, setting up temporary tent shelters in Andalusia, Benavides reports. Most migrants arrive in Andalusia because of its proximity to Morocco, across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Francisco Cansino, director of the nonprofit Spanish Commission for Refugees, says the number of migrants to Spain has been rising for the past few years.
“Spain has improvised things this summer,” Cansino told NPR in September. “It was known that the summer would be like this, and something could have been done to handle it better.”
Most migrants leave Andalusia to travel north, many with the intention of migrating to France. Migrants in Italy have also attempted to make a dangerous Alpine crossing into France.
Mediterranean crossings have become deadlier since 2015, when just a third of one percent of migrants died in the sea, according to data from UNHCR. Now nearly 2 percent of people who attempt the crossing die.
At least 12 migrants died last month after spending days at sea without food or water, NPR’s Joanna Kakissis reports.
According to the IOM, 4,503 migrants died across the world in 2018. No region saw as many deaths as the Mediterranean.
But total crossings to Europe have fallen substantially since they peaked in 2015, according to the European Commission. In October of that year alone, more than 200,000 migrants arrived by sea or land.