At least 880 migrants died last week in shipwrecks and boat capsizings while trying to cross the Mediterranean, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Tuesday, based on new information from survivors and additional accidents.
The odds of dying on the route from North Africa to Italy currently stand at 1 in 23, said UNCHR spokesman William Spindler in Geneva.
Vessels on this route are more crowded than those crossing from Turkey to Greece, the agency said, often carrying 600 or more passengers.
Smugglers in Libya are trying to reap as much profit as possible before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starts in early June, according to Spindler.
Three shipwrecks on this route led to least 700 deaths. The agency also said, based on the accounts of survivors who landed in Augusta, Italy, at the weekend, that 47 people were missing after a raft carrying 125 people from Libya deflated last week.
Eight people were said to have gone overboard on a separate boat, and another four people reportedly died in a fire on another vessel.
Nearly 204,000 people have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean so far this year, according to UNHCR.
It said 2,510 migrants died in the Mediterranean this year, 655 more than in the same period last year.
"Smugglers are becoming more ruthless and the boats are not even meant to make the crossing," Spindler said, adding that they will often call the coastguard immediately after sending passengers out.
Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, an aid and advocacy group, said smugglers are using even bigger boats and that these are dangerously overloaded.
Although many migrants originally seek jobs rather than refugee protection, Millman said that many of them end up being trafficked for sex work in Europe.
"They would be economic migrants when they set out but once they arrive, they are victims of trafficking in Europe and deserve protection," he said in Geneva.
Meanwhile, police in Italy said that 16 people - 11 from Morocco, two Palestinians, and one each from Ethiopia, Gambia and Egypt - were arrested for operating a migrant smuggling boat that was intercepted Thursday after setting off from Libya.
The men, aged 19 to 36, were charged with abetting illegal migration. According to the authorities in Catania, Sicily, where the arrests were made, the suspects extracted payments of 500 euros to 1,000 euros (558 dollars to 1,116 dollars) from each person who wanted to reach Europe.
Before the sea journey, the migrants were held captive for 30-45 days in Zuwarah and Sabrata and fed only once a day. Catania prosecutor Michelangelo Patane said at a press conference that they were given bread and water and beaten with straps.
There were additional arrests of 16 people in Greece and three in the Czech Republic who were suspected of forging documents such as passports and visas and migrant smuggling, according to a Europol statement.
Organized crime groups produced and couriered the falsified documents to EU member states and countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which were then used by migrants to either enter the European Union or towards legalizing their stays once in the bloc.
Europol said there were two crime groups operating in Athens, of Bangladeshi and Sudanese nationals. They charged fees ranging from 100 euros to 3,000 euros per document, such as passports, national ID cards, Schengen visas, driving licences, asylum seeker's registration cards and residence permits.
Czech police uncovered another group that was buying stolen or lost identity and travel documents in the Czech Republic, and sending them to the Athens' gangs to be altered.