2016 saw sharp drop in Mediterranean migrants, surge in deaths

  • migration of people
  • Europe

2ND LEAD

2016 saw sharp drop in Mediterranean migrants, surge in deaths

The number of migrants who arrived on Europe's shores dropped by nearly two thirds last year, but the death toll in the Mediterranean jumped to 5,079, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the EU border agency Frontex said Friday.

About 364,000 people seeking work or refugee protection crossed the sea between January and December, compared to more than 1 million in 2015.

A sharp drop in arrivals to Greece outweighed record migration to Italy, according to Frontex.

The decrease was largely due to a Turkey-EU deal whereby Ankara took back migrants who crossed by sea to the Greek islands and the EU resettled Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

"The drop was also influenced by tighter border controls in the Western Balkans," Frontex added.

At the same time, the number of people who died as they tried to reach Europe rose by 34 per cent last year from 2015, the UN-affiliated IOM said in Geneva.

Many shipwrecks occurred on the route between Libya and the Italian island of Sicily.

The trend shows that the Central Mediterranean route linking the Sahara region to Southern Europe still operates at full capacity despite European efforts to stem the flow, IOM analysts said.

The deaths in the Mediterranean pushed the 2016 global death tally for migrants to 7,495.

The latest reports of 300 more deaths in the Mediterranean are currently being vetted by the IOM.

Last year, the IOM also recorded some 1,100 fatalities in North Africa, 200 around the Horn of Africa, as well as 400 dead migrants on the route from Mexico to the United States.

Austria's defence minister has said in a new set of proposals that the European Union should curb immigration and foil people smugglers by banning refugee applications on its territory and setting up asylum application centres outside the bloc.

"This would enable EU countries to decide themselves who may enter Europe, rather than smuggling organizations," Hans Peter Doskozil said in a document obtained by dpa on Friday.

The European Commission dismissed the Austrian proposal.

"At the moment there are no commission plans to establish asylum centres to process applications outside EU territory," a spokeswoman of the EU executive body said in Brussels.

The EU would rather seek to set up additional bilateral migration deals like the one with Turkey, she added.

According to the Austrian plan, EU officials in the new centres would quickly decide whether migrants are in need of protection. The document proposed Niger as a potential location, without naming other countries.

Asylum seekers who pass this hurdle would be directly transferred to EU destination countries.

The document indirectly advocates an EU-wide cap for asylum seekers, by stating that "every country has capacity limits, beyond which integration is impossible."

People who are not accepted as refugees should be sent home, Doskozil said. If their home countries do not take them back, they should be be transferred to "protection zones," he proposed, without specifying where or how they should be set up.

A coordinated EU refugee policy has so far failed to materialize as some of the bloc's members, especially in the east, have refused to take in significant numbers of refugees. In addition, EU countries have not found a way to quickly send back economic migrants.

Despite the drop in arrivals last year, an estimated 123,000 migrants still managed to travel the so-called Balkan route from Greece to Western Europe last year, according to Frontex, despite steps by Austria and Balkan countries to stop the flow of people.

Doskozil also warned that a breakdown of the EU-Turkey deal could result in up to 1 million migrants launching journeys to Europe.

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  • Adds EU reaction to Austrian proposals in grafs 14-17

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  • Reporting by: Albert Otti in Vienna, Christiane Oelrich in Geneva and Verena Schmitt-Roschmann in Brussels
  • Editing by: Marc Galmoud-Aziz, +49 30 2852 31472, <international@dpa.com>

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