More than 400 migrants and refugees have drowned in the Central Mediterranean during the first three months of the year, making it the deadliest quarter since 2017 on the world’s most dangerous migrant crossing, according to the United Nations.
In a report released on Wednesday, the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that between January and March 2023, 441 migrants and refugees drowned in the Central Mediterranean. But the IOM has warned that the figure is likely an undercount of the true number of fatalities.
The Central Mediterranean has been described by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as the most dangerous migration route in the world, where one in six people who depart the shores of North Africa on small boats, seeking refuge or better economic opportunities in Europe, die on their journeys.
Since 2014, more than 20,700 people have drowned or disappeared in the Central Mediterranean while making the crossing.
These migrants flee poverty, conflict, war, forced labour, female genital mutilation, corrupt governments and personal threats.
In addition to the casualty figures are the ones forcibly returned, especially to Libya, described as “hell” by those who survived the ordeal on their transit.
Since February 2017, more than 36,000 people have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to the North African country, UN figures show.
Oliver Kulikowski, of Sea-Watch, a Germany-based search-and-rescue (SAR) organisation operating in the Mediterranean, told Al Jazeera that while the rubber dinghies that migrants and refugees use to cross the Central Mediterranean have been replaced by bigger fishing boats, they are still dangerous.
“These people have no choice,” Kulikowski said, adding that many of them continue to embark on the journey with the hope that they will survive.