By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – At least 380 Latin American migrants have died on their journeys this year, many of them Venezuelans drowning in the Caribbean or Central Americans perishing while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.N. migration agency said on Tuesday.
The toll, 50 percent more than the 241 recorded as of mid-June 2018, also coincides with tightened security along the U.S. southern border, which often leads migrants to turn to underground criminal smugglers and take riskier routes, it said.
President Donald Trump has made reducing illegal migration one of his signature policy pledges. His administration on Monday cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, after Trump blasted the three Central American countries because thousands of their citizens had sought asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico.
“This month has been marked by several tragedies on the U.S.-Mexico border, where at least 23 people have died since May 30 May, that is more than one per day,” spokesman Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration told a briefing.
IOM figures show that so far, 144 migrants are known to have died in Mexico, 143 in the Caribbean, 66 along Mexico’s southern border with Central America and 27 in South America.
A further 42 reported deaths were under investigation in Mexico, and of several dozen more refugees and migrants crossing the Darien jungle in Panama, he added.
“So we are seeing a level of fatality that we haven’t seen before. We caution that with the summer months just beginning, with the intense heat that brings, we can expect it to get worse,” Millman said.
Four million Venezuelans have fled their homeland, most of them since an economic and humanitarian crisis began in 2015, the U.N. refugee agency says. Most went overland to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.
But in images reminiscent of desperate Cubans fleeing their homeland in decades past, Venezuelans increasingly are taking to the sea in rickety boats.
The overall toll includes more than 80 Venezuelans who have died or disappeared in three shipwrecks in the Caribbean in the past two months, Millman said.
UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch called for better search and rescue operations to save Venezuelans fleeing via the Caribbean.
“As Venezuelans continue to use dangerous sea routes to leave their country, the U.N. refugee agency is calling for more coordinated search and rescue efforts to prevent further loss of life,” Baloch said.”It is also absolutely vital that people are able to access safe territory in ways that do not require them to risk their lives,” he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)