GENEVA: More than 1,500 people drowned or went missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2011 making it the deadliest stretch of water for refugees last year, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.
"This makes 2011 the deadliest year for this region since UNHCR started to record these statistics in 2006," UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes said at a press briefing.
She said UN officials were "disturbed" that since the beginning of this year "despite high seas and poor weather conditions, three boats have attempted this perilous journey from Libya with one going missing at sea".
She cited the case of at least 18 Somali migrants, including 12 women and one baby girl, being found washed up on beaches in Libya last week.
More than 58,000 people arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean last year, another record, said Wilkes.
The previous high was in 2008 when 54,000 people reached Greece, Italy and Malta, but border control measures during 2009 and 2010 sharply reduced arrivals in Europe.
"The frequency of boat arrivals increased in early 2011 as the regions in Tunisia and Libya collapsed," said Wilkes, while noting that the actual figures could be higher than those quoted by the UN agency.
"Survivors told UNHCR staff harrowing stories of being forced on board by armed guards, particularly during April and May in Libya," she said.
The journey took place in unseaworthy vessels with refugees or migrants often having to pilot boats themselves.
"In addition some survivors told UNHCR that fellow passengers beat and tortured them," triggering judicial investigations in Italy, Wilkes said.
Most of last year’s arrivals landed in Italy, while Malta and Greece received smaller numbers.