The number of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe has fallen dramatically, but the likelihood of dying while attempting the dangerous voyage has grown exponentially, the UN said Friday.
So far this year, more than 46,000 asylum-seekers and migrants have reached Europe's shores after crossing the Mediterranean Sea -- five times fewer than during the first half of 2016, the UN refugee agency said.
Arrivals to Italy and Malta fell to under 17,000 during the first half of this year from above 85,000 during the same period in 2017, IOM said.
But UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley told AFP that as "numbers of people crossing have gone down... the rate of people dying has gone up quite sharply".
So far in 2018, more than 1,400 people have died while trying to make the journey -- all but a few hundred of them along the particularly dangerous central Mediterranean route to Italy and Malta, according to numbers from the UN's migration agency, IOM.
During the first half of the year, one person died for every 19 who attempted to make the central Mediterranean crossing, compared to one in 38 during the same period of 2017.
June proved particularly deadly, Yaxley said, with one person perishing for every seven who took the central route.
"This suggests that people are being pushed into taking increasingly desperate and dangerous journeys," he said, stressing the urgency of strengthening search and rescue capacities.
Despite the dramatic drop in numbers, Europe is facing a large-scale political crisis over the migrants and refugees who continue to arrive from Africa and the Middle East.
EU member states last week reached a controversial deal on migrant arrivals, including the creation of secure centres for migrants in the bloc, "disembarkation platforms" outside the bloc and sharing out refugees among member states.
The deal came after Italy's new populist government pushed the issue to the forefront of the EU agenda by refusing to open the country's ports to migrant rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean.
Spain has opened its ports to several rescue ships run by charities which were turned away from Italy, but UNHCR warned that the lacking clarity over where ships will be allowed to dock with rescued migrants could have catastrophic consequences.
"Any vessel with the capability to assist search and rescue operations should be allowed to come to the aid of those in need and subsequently allowed to disembark at the nearest appropriate safe port," Yaxley told reporters in Geneva.
"If vessels are denied permission to disembark, shipmasters may delay responding to distress calls while considering the possibility of being left stranded at sea for days on end.
"There is a genuine risk this could jeopardise lives at sea."