As hundreds of young Africans have been bound for Libya to reach European shores, the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy has become the deadliest route migrants ply anywhere, the U.N. migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said in a statement.
According to the IOM, 1,089 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since Jan. 1. The report suggests that 1,002 of them died while taking the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy, while 37 died on the eastern Mediterranean route toward Greece and Crete.
"So far this year, 36,851 migrants or refugees entered Italy by sea, a nearly 45 percent increase over the total number of arrivals coming to Italy by the Central Mediterranean route last year at this time," the report said.
The IOM also noted the deaths and disappearances of 23 refugees over the weekend off the island of Lesbos between Greece and Turkey.
"These deaths nearly tripled the number - from 14 to 37 - of men, women, and children known to have died this year on the eastern Mediterranean route. That figure is barely 10 percent of the total recorded at this time last year when 376 migrants or refugees were known to have died trying to enter Greece by sea from Turkey," it said.
According to the IOM, refugee arrivals for the Greek islands were also much higher last year - more than 154,000 through April 23, compared to just 4,843 this year.
The sea crossing from Libya to Italy, operated by people-smugglers based in the North African country, is now the main route for migrants bound for Europe.
In Libya, the turmoil engulfing this North African country has become a death trap for thousands of migrants, most of them from sub-Saharan African countries, seeking to escape poverty and find a better life in Europe.
Libya, the oil-rich North African country, descended into chaos after Western intervention, and parts of it have become a bastion for Daesh, giving the militants a new base even as its territory in Syria and Iraq shrinks under constant assault.
Five years after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was toppled by NATO intervention, the country has become the main jump-off point for migrants heading for Europe, and the breeding ground for militants as there is no security or stability left in the war-torn country.
In 2016, 90 per cent of migrants who made it to Italy left from Libya, but none were Libyan nationals, according to Italian Interior Minister Minniti.
Libya's UN-backed unity government has requested 800 million euros ($860 million) worth of equipment to help patrol its coast and territorial waters, including radars, boats, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, according to Italy's Corriere della Sera daily.
There is also talk of a Libya-based operational center to coordinate rescues in international waters off the North African coast, relieving the burden on Rome, which has been forced to monitor and intervene well beyond its established maritime surveillance zone.
Experts say some of the equipment requested by Libya would fall foul of a UN embargo on arms imports into the country. Critics also warn against planned repatriations of asylum seekers to a country where allegations of torture, rape and murder are rife.