75,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean sea this year

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Italian coastguards help a group of boat people found floating in a crowded craft near Lampedusa Island.UNHCR/A.Di Loreto

More than 800 migrants and asylum seekers have died this year as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean sea towards Europe, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

In the past ten days alone 260 migrants and asylum seekers have died or been reported missing at sea.

UNHCR says survivors have been reporting disturbing incidents of mass drownings, suffocations and suspected mass stabbings on board the migrant boats.

The agency says the number of migrants who have died this year has exceeded figures recorded in the past two years and is appealing to European countries to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent such tragedies.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres is calling on governments to strengthen rescue operations, provide swift access to asylum procedures for those in need of protection, and legal alternatives to dangerous sea crossings.

He welcomed efforts by European authorities, particularly in Italy, to rescue boats in distress in the Mediterranean, but added that all states must continue to fulfill their obligations under international refugee law and the law of the sea.

More than 75,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014 majority of them from Eritrea, Syria and Mali.

UNHCR is also urging European countries to provide additional and better facilities to receive those rescued, and to identify longer-term solutions for refugees, including resettlement, admission based on humanitarian needs, admission schemes based on private sponsorship, facilitated access to family reunification and the use of programmes such as student or employment visas.

Patrick Maigua, United Nations, Geneva.

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