Mediterranean boat people numbers soar to near 100,000 this year

GENEVA Thu Jul 24, 2014 10:24am EDT

Migrants sit in their boat during a rescue operation by Italian navy ship Grecale (not pictured) off the coast of Sicily, in this handout picture by the Italian Marina Militare June 29, 2014. Around 30 migrants were found dead on another boat packed with people off the coast of Sicily, said Italy's navy which rescued thousands more trying to leave North Africa over the weekend. REUTERS/Marina Militare/Handout via Reuters

Migrants sit in their boat during a rescue operation by Italian navy ship Grecale (not pictured) off the coast of Sicily, in this handout picture by the Italian Marina Militare June 29, 2014. Around 30 migrants were found dead on another boat packed with people off the coast of Sicily, said Italy's navy which rescued thousands more trying to leave North Africa over the weekend.

Credit: Reuters/Marina Militare/Handout via Reuters

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GENEVA (Reuters) - Almost 100,000 boat people have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe this year, a roughly 60 percent increase on the whole of last year, and about 800 have died in the attempt, the U.N. refugee agency said on Thursday.

The exodus has surged this year, as far more migrants put their lives in the hands of smugglers or unseaworthy vessels in a desperate attempt to reach Europe.

More than 75,000 made the trip in the first six months of the year, landing up in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta, the UNHCR agency said. Their number included 10,500 children, two-thirds of them unaccompanied or separated from their families.

The number of the whole of 2013 was around 60,000.

The UNHCR also said that this year the numbers are accelerating: 21,000 have reached Italy since the beginning of July.

Meanwhile, more than 260 people have died or gone missing in the past 10 days, bringing to 800 the total number of deaths so far in 2014, compared with 600 in the whole of 2013 and 500 in 2012.

"Europeans need to take urgent action to stop this catastrophe getting worse in the second half of 2014," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

Many of the migrants are fleeing violence in Eritrea and Syria, and most travel from Libya or elsewhere in North Africa.

"Rescued refugees and migrants have reported handing over their life savings to smugglers, in order to travel in unseaworthy and overcrowded dinghies, packed into a few meters of space without food, water or life jackets," the UNHCR statement said.

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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