By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - More than 1,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean this year sailing from Libya to Europe, with a rush in the past few days to beat an anticipated crackdown by the European Union, the International Organization for Migration said late on Sunday.
Around 204 people have died in the past few days after being packed into unsafe vessels by smugglers, with 103 lost in a shipwreck on Friday and more lost on Sunday when a rubber boat capsized east of Tripoli, with 41 survivors.
“There is an alarming increase in deaths at sea off Libya's coast,” IOM's Libya Chief of Mission Othman Belbeisi said in a statement. “Smugglers are exploiting the desperation of migrants to leave before there are further crackdowns on Mediterranean crossings by Europe.”
The flow of migrants has abated since a peak in 2015, with the number attempting the dangerous sea crossing from North Africa falling to tens of thousands from hundreds of thousands. The other main route, from Turkey to Greece, used by more than a million people in 2015, was largely shut two years ago.
IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said the surge in recent days may be due to factors including weather and the end of Ramadan.
"But also there is a recognition I think worldwide that the European Union is starting to manage the process better so maybe they equally are trying to profit while they can. Smugglers will always put profit before safety.”
Despite the increase in deaths in recent days, the number lost at sea so far this year is less than half that recorded by this time last year. But the journey by land through the Sahara and then across the Mediterranean remains world's deadliest migration route, and as polarising as ever in European politics.
Anti-immigrant rightwing parties took power in Italy last month, are now firmly entrenched in the ex-Communist states of central Europe and won seats in the German parliament for the first time since the 1940s last year.
On Sunday, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer offered to resign over immigration proposals brought back from Brussels by Chancellor Angela Merkel, casting doubt over whether her fragile government can survive.
The effort to reduce people-smuggling has hinged in part on developing a coast guard for Libya that returns migrants caught off shore. However there has been controversy over the conditions of their treatment in Libya.
Between Friday and Sunday, close to 1,000 migrants were returned to the Libyan shore by the Libyan Coast Guard. So far this year, the coast guard has returned about 10,000 to shore, where Libyan authorities transfer them to detention centres.
“Migrants returned by the coast guard should not automatically be transferred to detention and we are deeply concerned that the detention centres will yet again be overcrowded and that living conditions will deteriorate with the recent influx of migrants,” Belbeisi said.
IOM chief William Lacy Swing said he would go to Tripoli this week to see the conditions firsthand.
“IOM is determined to ensure that the human rights of all migrants are respected as together we all make efforts to stop the people smuggling trade, which is so exploitative of migrants,” the statement quoted Swing as saying.
Swing will be replaced later this year by former European Commissioner Antonio Vitorino, who won election to the job on Friday, beating U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to become only the second non-American leader of the body in its history.
(Reporting by Tom Miles, Stephanie Nebehay and Cecile Mantovani)