There are 66 days left to go in 2016, but on October 25 the number of people who died this year trying to reach European shores via smuggling routes across the Mediterranean Sea matched last year's grim total.

Shockingly, only about a third as many have made the attempt this year. That means that something about migration dynamics has changed to make reaching Europe three times as deadly.

The reasons are manifold. They stem from the unintended consequences of hard-nosed decisions by governments, as well as the inevitable consequences of reckless decisions by smugglers.

Deadly incidents off the coast of Turkey tend to result in fewer deaths. Before March of this year, the relatively short sea crossing from Turkey to various Greek isles was the preferred route to Europe, especially for those fleeing the war in Syria, which borders Turkey. More than a million people arrived in Greece via this route between January 2015 and March 2016.


In March, the European Union and Turkey reached a deal. It stipulated that all arrivals in Greece would be returned to Turkey, where they could apply for asylum. While the deal didn't totally stop people from using the route, it dissuaded many. Refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have swollen. Fifty thousand refugees, mostly Syrians, remain stuck in Greece after European nations reneged on pledges to resettle them across the continent.

So attention has shifted to what is known as the "central Mediterranean" route, from North Africa to Italy. The central route accounts for only about half of the total arriving in Europe, but most of the deaths. Its watery graveyard is populated almost entirely by Africans fleeing conditions that are dire but don't come with refugee camps. They are in search of a life unshackled by extreme poverty and hunger's indignities.

"People are having to take a more dangerous route," said Chris Boian, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "It's that simple."

Weather is often worse in the central Mediterranean, he said, but distance plays a more decisive factor. Patrol boats must travel farther for rescues. And, more simply, the more time a boat is in the water, the more time it has to sink. Especially when the boat is flimsy to begin with.

"It appears that smugglers [on this route] are using low-quality vessels. Some are basically just inflatable rafts packed to the brim with people," said Boian.

William Spindler, Boian's counterpart in Geneva, said risky practices were becoming more and more common among North Africa based smugglers.

"Smuggling has become a big business, it's being done almost on an industrial scale," Spindler said. "So now they send several boats at the same time, and that puts rescue services in difficulty because they need to rescue several thousand people on several hundred boats."

Refugees sit in a inflatable boat off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo / AP
Refugees sit in a inflatable boat off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo / AP

That "mass embarkation" strategy has resulted in massive single-incident death tolls reaching into the hundreds.

More than 1000 died off the Libyan coast in a single week in May. More recently, 123 bodies were recovered from a wreck off the Egyptian coast in September.

Yesterday alone, about 2200 migrants were rescued in the central Mediterranean. That was the result of 21 separate rescue missions. Only 16 bodies were recovered, according to the Italian coast guard.

A spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration said survivors are certain the toll was higher. In addition, other wrecks may have occurred that are not yet known to European authorities, the spokesman said.

One out of every 47 people attempting the crossing from North Africa has died, said Spindler. When the route to Greece was in full swing last year, that number was 1 in 269.