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Migrant death toll from sea crossings hits record in 2016, group says

Migrant death toll from sea crossings hits record in 2016, group says
Migrants in a boat off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa ask for help in April. (Patrick Bar / SOS Mediterranee)

Four Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks in the past 2½ days have caused about 340 migrants to die or go missing, making 2016 the deadliest year on record for asylum seekers risking the dangerous voyage to Europe, a migration organization said Thursday.

The latest casualties bring to over 4,500 the number of migrants who have died or disappeared crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. The total surpasses the 3,770 people reported dead or missing last year, the previous record.

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The organization said Thursday that the death toll is rising as smugglers force departures despite rough, winter seas.

"What is shocking is the cruelty," Flavio Di Giacomo, Italy spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said. "The traffickers are forcing people to depart despite the prohibitive sea conditions. When they get to the beach, migrants who don't want to go are forced to get on board, even with violence."

Di Giacomo said traffickers care little if the migrants make it to their destinations alive. "Once you pay, you can't go back," he said.

The count from the recent shipwrecks was based partly on the rescue overnight by Doctors Without Borders of 27 migrants, who reported that more than 130 people had been on board their rubber dinghy when it sank, Di Giacomo said. Seven bodies have been recovered.

In another incident, 15 survivors rescued by a mercantile ship about 30 miles from Libyan shores reported that some 135 people died when their smugglers' boat capsized. Five bodies were recovered.

Another ship rescued 23 migrants, who reported that more than 120 people had been on board when they sank overnight Tuesday. Six bodies were recovered Tuesday in the fourth rescue, of 114 people.

The impossibility of recovering the bodies of every migrant lost at sea means that humanitarian organizations must rely on the accounts of survivors to tally the number believed drowned, as tens of thousands fleeing war, poverty and persecution seek to reach safety in Europe in smugglers' boats.

The European Union's Frontex border agency says a record 27,500 migrants were rescued and brought to Italy in October, the highest monthly total ever in the central Mediterranean and twice as many as in previous months.

So far this year, nearly 160,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, up 13% from last year.

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