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Number of Europe-bound migrants falls, but deaths rise

PARIS — Toward the end of summer, warmer weather and calmer seas have brought a spike in attempted migrant passages across the Mediterranean, many of them life-threatening.

This past week, the Italian coast guard reported rescuing approximately 6,500 migrants off the Libyan coast as part of the summer spike along the central Mediterranean route, from North Africa to the Italian peninsula and its outer islands.

The incident was the latest in a long summer of similar occurrences in which makeshift and ill-equipped boats have frequently capsized in dangerous waters. Drownings have been reported for months off the coasts of Cyprus, Sicily and Libya.

The summer of 2016 has marked a dark new chapter in Europe's migrant crisis, the largest in European history since the upheavals of 1945, with more than a million people having arrived on the continent in the past year alone.

The numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa who have made these sea crossings to European ports — mostly in Greece and Italy — have gradually declined this year. Despite the lower numbers, fatalities have actually risen.

According to the International Organization for Migration, nearly 280,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea in the first eight months of 2016, compared with nearly 355,000 in the same period last year.

But through the end of August, more than 3,000 migrants and refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean, at least 500 more than at this point last year, the agency reports.

In a year that has seen the European Union confronted with some of its greatest challenges since its establishment, many have begun to consider these fatalities as inevitable collateral damage in a continent preoccupied with processing migrants when they arrive and the aftermath of Britain's vote to leave the EU altogether.

The composition of the Brussels-based bloc often has impeded any comprehensive, unified plan for processing migrants who come by sea. And Frontex, the EU's border-control agency, relies on particular member states to provide the equipment and vessels the agency needs in the Mediterranean. As a result, migrant rescues in the Mediterranean have been conducted largely through a combination of governmental and nongovernmental initiatives, with the coast guards of Libya and Italy and organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace carrying out search operations.

According to Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Libya and Syria, in theory the EU has sought cooperation from African states in curbing the flow of migrants, but certain governments are reluctant to curb an emerging people-smuggling trade that has proved lucrative. "A lot of people are making money along the way," he said.