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Amnesty: 2017 on Course to Be Deadliest Year Yet for Refugees Crossing the Mediterranean

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This year is set to be the deadliest year for refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean in the desperate attempt to reach safety or a better life in Europe, with the mortality rate tripling since 2015, according to a new report.

The Amnesty International report, called A perfect storm: The failure of European policies in the Central Mediterranean, links the soaring death toll in the Mediterranean, which has seen 2,000 deaths since January, to failing E.U. policies. The route between Libya and Italy has become the primary means for refugees arriving in Europe, and the most hazardous.

It found that by giving non-governmental organizations (NGOs) the largest share of responsibility for search and rescue in the sea crossing, Europe’s governments have failed to prevent drownings and the horrific abuses, including torture and rape, that are faced by thousands of refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centres.

According to the report, E.U. leaders dramatically decreased the number of deaths at sea in 2015 when they implemented measures to strengthen search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean, including providing more rescue boats closer to Libyan territorial waters.

However, the report said that governments then shifted their approach, instead preventing the departures of boats from Libya in order to keep the number of arrivals in Europe down. Amnesty described this as “a failing strategy that has led to ever more dangerous crossings and a threefold increase in the death-rate from 0.89% in the second half of 2015 to 2.7% in 2017.”

The report criticises the E.U. for focusing on strengthening the Libyan coastguard’s ability to prevent departures and intercept boats – which often put refugees and migrants at risk – rather than deploy an “adequately resourced and dedicated humanitarian operation near Libyan territorial waters.”

Amnesty has been made aware of allegations that members of the Libyan coastguard have abused migrants, with some even shooting guns towards boats. A U.N. report published in June on the situation in Libya had similar findings. It mentioned a number of human rights violations against migrants including “executions, torture and deprivation of food, water and access to sanitation.” The report added that “Abd al-Rahman Milad (alias Bija), and other coastguard members, are directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms.”

“If the second half of this year continues as the first and urgent action is not taken, 2017 looks set to become the deadliest year for the deadliest migration route in the world,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, in a statement. “The E.U. must rethink its cooperation with Libya’s woefully dysfunctional coastguard and deploy more vessels where they are desperately needed.”

Italy is currently caught up in a dispute with NGOs over search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, threatening to prevent them from docking in Italian ports if they didn’t better manage how they are dropping off refugees. Italy wants other EU states to take in refugees saved at sea.

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Write to Kate Samuelson at kate.samuelson@time.com