This year is set to become the deadliest on record for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

The number of people who perished traversing the sea in hopes of a better life in Europe has reached nearly 4,300 for 2016. The rising death toll comes despite a decrease in the number of people crossing the Mediterranean, but most of this year’s deaths have occurred on one specific route—from Libya to Italy.

The rise in deaths may be due to increasingly ruthless smugglers capitalizing on the ongoing refugee crisis, according to officials at the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS.)

“[Our] research and analysis suggests that this change in approach might be both an attempt to maximize opportunity and meet demand on the part of the smugglers,” reads a statement  from MOAS officials. “The smuggling networks appear to be industrializing, with increased competition representing a new challenge for them in procuring enough rubber boats, engines, and fuel containers to meet the demand.”


The rescue organization charges that smugglers are cutting corners by packing unprecedented numbers of migrants and refugees, often in the hundreds, onto unseaworthy rubber boats and dinghies.

“The combination of heavier loads and inferior quality is a recipe for disaster”, MOAS Head of Operations Ian Ruggier said in the statement. “Rescue assets have had to deal with increased challenges. There is no doubt that the vessels are built to last a few miles to see people beyond Libyan territorial waters”.

MOAS officials say that it’s almost certain that the true death toll is much higher than the grim, official figure.

[embedded content] first reported on the peril faced by refugees crossing the Mediterranean in October in an interview with one relief worker, Janelle Eli, who volunteered for rescue efforts aboard the vessels operated by MOAS.

“I never understood how dangerous the journey from Libya to Europe by sea could be until I saw it with my own eyes,” Eli, who also works with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a new interview with regarding the latest numbers from MOAS.

“When we spotted flimsy rafts and boats with our searchlight in the pitch dark, my heart always skipped a beat,” she said. “We could see through binoculars that rubber rafts were bowing under the weight of so many people. Hundreds of eyes looking back at us —  stunned and panicked, but hopeful they’d be rescued.”

Eli said deaths are caused by a host of reasons.

“[D]rowning isn’t the only cause of death,” she said. “Others die from dehydration, hypothermia, hyperthermia, fuel burns, asphyxiation, crush injuries from overcrowding, or wounds from being beaten by smugglers or captors in Libya.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych