GENEVA — Deaths among migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe are poised to overtake the fatalities last year despite a sharp fall in the number making the journey, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.
At least 3,740 people had died by the start of this week trying the perilous crossing, compared with 3,771 in the whole of 2015, William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, told journalists in Geneva. An overwhelming majority, nearly nine in 10, died on the trip from Libya to Italy.
“This is by far the worst we have ever seen,” Mr. Spindler said.
So far this year, 327,800 people have crossed the Mediterranean, about one-third the number who crossed last year. On that basis, the death rate could be said to have tripled, he added.
The sharp rise in fatalities resulted at least in part from changing tactics used by smugglers, who have increasingly resorted to mass embarkations loading thousands of people at a time and using less seaworthy boats, including inflatable rubber rafts that do not last the crossing.
“Smuggling has become big business: It’s being done on an almost industrial scale,” Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, told reporters. The mass embarkation tactic appeared intended to raise profits and reduce the risk of detection, he said.
Around 153,450 migrants have arrived in Italy this year from North Africa, and at least 3,195 people have died on this route, according to the institute, accounting for close to 90 percent of all the migrant deaths in Mediterranean recorded this year.
Among the latest casualties were four migrants who reportedly drowned after a speedboat identified as belonging to the Libyan Coast Guard attacked a rubber dinghy packed with around 150 people on Friday, collapsing one of the dinghy’s inflated tubes and causing most of the passengers to fall into the sea.
Sea-Watch, a rescue organization based in Germany, said that the speedboat was labeled Libyan Coast Guard and that it retrieved four bodies and rescued around 120 people. The Libyan Coast Guard has denied any involvement in the incident.
Mass embarkations are straining the capacity of rescue services to cope. The Italian Navy and Coast Guard rescued more than 6,000 migrants in a single day early this month and on Monday pulled 2,200 more to safety in the course of 21 rescue operations.
Most migrants arriving in Italy are fleeing conflict or hardship in Nigeria, Eritrea and other African countries, and they are so desperate to get away that they expect to be turned back and to have to make several tries to get across the Mediterranean, Mr. Millman said.