Spain has received more migrants via the Mediterranean Sea so far this year compared with the total number of migrants that reached European shores by sea, a U.N. migration agency reported yesterday.
The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported yesterday that 45,145 men, women and children entered Spain through the Western Mediterranean route through Oct. 21. That was almost half of the more than 94,000 migrants who have entered Europe by sea from North Africa this year and came amid a migrant crackdown by countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. The U.N. agency says total arrivals are significantly down compared to recent years, with almost 147,000 recorded by this point last year and just over 324,000 in 2016.
The Mediterranean continues to be a deadly route for migrants trying to enter Europe illegally, with 1,857 deaths reported so far this year. As the EU has yet to find common ground or a policy for saving the lives of migrants at sea, rights groups accused EU member states for the increase in the Mediterranean migrant death toll. The risk of dying in the central Mediterranean Sea has jumped to one in 18 for migrants this year as nongovernmental rescue ships face difficulties on this key route to Europe, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said last September.
The journey by land through the Sahara and then across the Mediterranean remains the world's deadliest migration route and as polarizing as ever in European politics. Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also the head of the far-right League party and a prominent member of the new Italian government, is leading a high-profile campaign to exclude humanitarian rescue ships from Italian ports. He also argues that European countries should find a way to block the migrants before they leave Africa or send boats with asylum seekers back to the ports they came from, including Libya's harbors. Besides Italy, governments in Austria and central Europe argue that the EU can only bring migration under control by closing its borders to new arrivals, while opposing efforts to redistribute asylum seekers within the bloc.
The number of migrants reaching the EU has in fact dropped sharply since the height of the crisis in 2015 when more than a million arrived from the Middle East and Africa, mostly by sea from Turkey to Greece and then overland across the Balkans. That route was largely shut down by a 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey. The other main route, the frequently deadly crossing from North Africa to Italy, remains open, but numbers have declined substantially in the past year as Libyan armed factions have cut down on people smuggling. Still the issue remains sharply divisive across Europe.