Geneva - January to March 2023 was the deadliest first quarter for central Mediterranean migrants since 2017, the United Nations has said, with 441 lives lost as crossings to Europe soar.
The UN's International Organization for Migration said delays in state-led search and rescue (SAR) operations played a part in several fatal incidents in the perilous sea crossing from north Africa.
And the IOM said the 441 known deaths in the first three months of the year was likely an undercount of the true number.
"The persisting humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean is intolerable," IOM chief Antonio Vitorino said on Wednesday.
"With more than 20,000 deaths recorded on this route since 2014, I fear that these deaths have been normalised. States must respond," he added.
The IOM said delays in rescues were a factor in at least six incidents so far this year, leading to the deaths of at least 127 people.
"The complete absence of response to a seventh case claimed the lives of at least 73 migrants," it said in a statement, adding that non-governmental organisations' SAR efforts have markedly diminished in recent months.
The UN agency's Missing Migrants Project is also investigating several cases in which boats were reported missing, where there are no records of survivors, no remains and no SAR operations.
The fates of more than 300 people aboard those vessels remain unclear, the organisation said.
- Italian state of emergency -
The IOM said that over the Easter weekend, 3,000 more migrants reached Italy.
Numbers of boat landings have surged this year, with almost 32,000 migrants arriving on Italy’s shores since January, according to interior ministry figures, compared to 8,000 over the same period in 2022.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government, which took office in October promising to end mass migration, late Tuesday declared a six-month state of emergency on immigration and allocated an additional five million euros ($5.5 million) to managing the issue.
Meloni said this would enable "more effective and timely responses", including providing better reception and processing facilities.
But critics said the measure -- used more than 120 times in the last decade, normally for natural disasters -- disguises a lack of a proper migrant strategy.
The European Union's border agency Frontex said the number of first-quarter irregular border crossings on the central Mediterranean route was nearly 28,000, triple the number in the first three months of 2022.
The route accounts for more than half of all irregular border crossings into the EU, with the largest numbers of migrants originally coming from Ivory Coast, Guinea and Pakistan.
"In March, the total detections on this route increased almost nine-fold compared to last year, to more than 13,000," it said.
"Organised crime groups took advantage of better weather and political volatility in some countries of departure to try to smuggle as many migrants as possible across the central Mediterranean from Tunisia and Libya."
- 'Ad hoc response' -
The IOM said the situation in the central Mediterranean reinforced the need for predictable state-led search and rescue, putting an end to the "ad hoc response" since the end of the Italian navy's Operation Mare Nostrum in 2014.
"Saving lives at sea is a legal obligation for states," said Vitorino.
"We need to see proactive, state-led coordination in search-and-rescue efforts."
Countries need to support the life-saving efforts of NGOs and end the "criminalisation, obstruction and deterrence" of those who do come to the rescue, the IOM said.
The agency also called for tougher action to dismantle criminal smuggling networks and to prosecute those responsible for "profiting from the desperation of migrants and refugees by facilitating dangerous journeys".
Even as the IOM released its findings, the Tunisian coastguard announced that 10 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa had drowned in the Mediterranean in a shipwreck on Tuesday. Seventy-two migrants were rescued.
By Robin Millard