More than 10,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe since 2014, the UN said today, as the EU unveiled fresh plans to stem the migrant flow from Africa.
Following a rash of deadly shipwrecks in recent weeks which claimed the lives of hundreds of people, the UN refugee agency said the number of deaths at sea had risen sharply this year, with a record 2814 people drowning since January.
And over the past few days, the overall number who have died since the start of 2014 has reached 10,085, the UNHCR said.
With Europe in the grip of its worst migrant crisis since World War II, the rising death toll has prompted urgent efforts to tackle the problem, with Brussels seeking ways to clamp down on the Africa route from after a deal with Ankara in March slashed numbers trying to cross from Turkey.
"We cannot tolerate the loss of life on this scale, we need to do everything to stop it," European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said as he unveiled the plans.
The new proposal involves using EU funds to promote private investment of up to €60 billion in key countries of origin for migrants, namely Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal, as well as Jordan and Lebanon, Timmermans said.
A total of €8 billion of EU funds are available to support migration deals with external countries, many of which were first mooted at a crisis summit of European and African nations in Malta last year.
The Commission also wants to speed up readmission deals with African countries and with Pakistan and Afghanistan to make it easier to send back migrants who do not win refugee status.
"There will be consequences for those that refuse to cooperate," Dutchman Timmermans told the European Parliament alongside EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
The European Commission was later to unveil a plan for a "blue card" system for skilled migrants to come to Europe legally.
The aim is to reduce the incentive for people to try to smuggle themselves into the continent illegally on flimsy boats and put their lives at risk.
"If we ever want to compete with the US Green Card, we need an EU Blue Card that deserves the same merit," Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said.
DEATHS AT SEA
1 2814 refugees and migrants have drowned since January
2 3771 had died at sea in 2015
3 3500 in 2014
"You've now had since the start of 2014 - when this phenomenon of rising numbers across the Mediterranean happened - 10,000 deaths," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.
"This is clearly an appalling number of deaths that have occurred in the Mediterranean, just on Europe's borders just in the past couple of years," Edwards said.
More than one million migrants and refugees made the journey to Europe in 2015, the majority fleeing war in Syria and the Middle East, and a further 204,000 have come since January, the UNHCR says.
The vast majority have died on crossings between Libya and Italy, as a controversial March deal between the EU and Turkey designed to halt the flow of largely Syrian migrants using the popular Aegean route has led to a sharp drop in arrivals.