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This year could be deadliest yet for Mediterranean Sea migrants, UN warns (+video)

The United Nations' refugee agency said Tuesday that 3,740 migrants have died this year crossing the Mediterranean Sea and asked countries to help prevent further loss of life.

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Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) field coordinator, Michele Telaro, together with two members of the Bourbon Argos crew, distribute lifejackets during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, Wednesday.

Borja Ruiz Rodriguez/MSF/AP

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The United Nations refugee agency has expressed concern about the high death toll among migrants so far in 2016 and is calling for further action to save lives.

So far this year, 3,740 migrants have perished trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, UN High Commissioner of Refugees spokesperson William Spindler said on Tuesday. That figure is just short of the 3,771 who lost their lives in 2015, with two months of the year still to go.

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The death toll comes with a sharp decline in people attempts to cross the sea: Last year, according to the report, more then 1 million people made the crossing. "This year so far," reads the agency's briefing, "crossings stand at 327,800."

This emerging pattern is the result of several interacting forces, the UNHCR indicates. One way to prevent the deaths, the international body suggests, is to find other ways for refugees to reach safety than increasingly perilous sea crossings.

Migrants are being pulled from the Mediterranean daily, after the boats intended to carry them to safety collapse on choppy waters. On Monday alone, about 2,200 migrants were rescued across 21 rescue missions, the Italian Coast Guard said.

As the crisis has gone on, the boats migrants leave in have become little more than inflatable rafts. An estimated 150,000 people have set off from North Africa in unseaworthy boats so far this year. 

Since March, these flimsy vessels have been pressed into service on a more dangerous crossing. After a deal between the EU and Turkey closed off migrants’ path to Greece, traffic increased on the route between North Africa and Italy, which the UNHCR says is known to be more risky.

Search-and-rescue missions are doing important work, “without which the fatality rates would almost certainly be higher,” Spindler noted. But their efforts have been made more complex over the past year, as people-smugglers who organize the crossings began to send hundreds of rafts into the sea together. When these boats start to collapse, rescuers may not have the capabilities to rescue everyone.

Groups like Sea-Watch, a German-based humanitarian group, have also expressed their concern about “aggressive” interference by national governments. Outside Libyan territorial waters on Friday, the group saw a Libyan coast guard member board a dinghy, spurring fearful migrants to jump into the sea.

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Military officials from the EU hope to prevent further deaths by training members of the Libyan coast guard in search-and-rescue and basic seamanship. 

“If anything, last week’s incident shows that there’s a need for more training and there’s a need for it soon,” a government source in Italy, one of the countries participating in the training, told Reuters. Western governments hope that Libya’s Tripoli government can be a key player in efforts to combat migrant smuggling and terrorism.

Spindler recognized the challenge of simultaneously protecting migrants while preventing asylum systems from becoming overloaded. But countries can find more proactive ways to help migrants, he said.

“Measures to save lives are available and UNHCR urges all countries to do more in this regard,” Mr. Spindler said. He pointed to family reunification schemes, private sponsorship, and humanitarian, student or work visas as just a few of the alternative means by which refugees could get out of their home countries, thus reducing the number of migrants who take perilous sea voyages with smugglers.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.