GENEVA (Reuters) - At least 880 migrants and refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean last week, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday, amid speculation that people smugglers may be trying to maximize their income before Ramadan begins.
This year is proving to be particularly deadly, with 2,510 lives lost in shipwrecks and capsizes, compared with 1,855 in the same period in 2015, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said.
Nearly 204,000 people have made the perilous crossing to reach Europe so far this year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
Citing reports from survivors interviewed in Italy, it said smugglers may be trying to maximize income their before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Ramadan is expected to begin around June 6 or 7.
“At the moment smugglers are packing people on boats that are barely sea-worthy and that in many cases are not meant to make the crossing. So what happens is that as soon as they depart from the shore they call for rescue and then the rescue services come and rescue them,” Spindler told a briefing.
“In fact, it’s a race against time to get there before these boats sink, and on some occasions they get there too late.”
The Italian coastguard has rescued 14,000 people and is coordinating search and rescue operations with vessels of other countries, Spindler said.
The flow has dropped between Turkey and Greece since an agreement in which Turkey has agreed to help stop illegal migrants reaching Europe in return for accelerated EU accession talks, visa liberalization, and financial aid.
Boats departing from the shores west of Tripoli in Libya often carry more than 600 people and are sometimes towed by larger fishing boats, a dangerous practice, Spindler said.
“The North Africa-Italy route is dramatically more dangerous: 2,119 of the deaths reported to far this year have been among people making this journey, making for odds of dying as high as one in 23,” Spindler said.
Sub-Saharan Africans crossing from Libya are mostly Nigerians and Gambians, but also include Somalis and Eritreans fleeing war or persecution.
“We need to crack down on smugglers but simply doing that is not going to work if we don’t offer people an alternative. The reason why so many people are taking to sea in these conditions is that they have no choice,” Spindler said.
“Whether they want to come for economic reasons to Europe or whether they are fleeing war and persecution, there is no other legal alternative open to them.”
European countries agreed last year to re-locate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, but fewer than 2,000 have been relocated, figures show.
“This is shameful, we need to speed up this process. Spindler said. “We need more to happen, because countries such as Greece and Italy cannot manage this crisis on their own.”
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams