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At least 880 refugees believed to have drowned in Mediterranean in past week

One of the 45 bodies of refugees that was recovered by the Italian military ship Vega during its search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean sea. Picture by Adriana Sapone, Associated Press
Staff Reporter

THE UN refugee agency says survivors' accounts indicate that shipwrecks and capsized boats have claimed at least 880 lives over the last week in the Mediterranean.

UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said this year is proving to be "particularly deadly" on the Mediterranean, with some 2,510 lives lost compared to 1,855 over the same period a year ago.

Authorities and international organisations had previously reported some 700 migrants and refugees had perished in Mediterranean shipwrecks over three days last week, the deadliest known tally in over a year.

Mr Spindler reiterated UNHCR's appeal to the European Union to allow for more legal pathways for refugees to reach Europe, and said it was "shameful" that the bloc had resettled fewer than 2,000 people under a plan announced last year to resettle 160,000.

Saying UNHCR has "better figures now", Mr Spindler cited new estimates that about 100 people died in a shipwreck on Wednesday, some 550 others died in another capsizing on Thursday and a third sinking on Friday left 170 others missing and presumed dead.

UNHCR said survivors who landed in Augusta, Italy, over the weekend indicated that 47 other migrants were missing at sea in a separate incident after a raft carrying 125 migrants deflated.

"Eight others were reported separately to have been lost overboard from another boat, and four deaths were reported after fire on aboard another," UNHCR said.

Mr Spindler said authorities were still trying to understand the rise in deaths, even as they know the region is moving into its high season for human trafficking.

UNHCR cited unconfirmed accounts that smugglers might be trying to "maximize income" before the Ramadan holy month, which begins in the first week of June. Mr Spindler also said he had never heard of smugglers using such risky tactics as having one overloaded boat tow another one overflowing with hundreds of people.

Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, also pointed to a new tactic used by smugglers in recent weeks.

"Traffickers and smugglers working out of Libya are using much bigger boats now, carrying as many as 750 people, where for the last 12 months, we've been seeing a lot of smaller rubber inflatable dinghies," Mr Millman said at a Geneva news conference alongside Mr Spindler.

UNHCR said most boats leaving Libya are departing from Sabratha, west of Tripoli.

A deal between the European Union and Turkey to return migrants to Turkey has significantly dampened the migrant sea route into Europe from Turkey to Greece, which hundreds of thousands of people used last year.

UNHCR has been watching for signs that migrants may be shifting to the much longer and more dangerous Libya-Italy option.

"As of now, UNHCR has not seen evidence of a significant diversion of Syrians, Afghans or Iraqis from the Turkey-Greece route to the central Mediterranean one," Mr Spindler said.

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