Jan. 30 (UPI) -- The United Nations refugee agency expressed alarm Wednesday at the rate migrants are dying while crossing the Mediterranean Sea to escape violence, saying the trek killed an average of six every day in 2018.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report 2,275 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean last year, as the total number of refugees arriving in Europe fell to its lowest level in five years.
A contributing factor, it said, is that search and rescue operations have been cut in recent years, leaving desperate migrants fleeing violence in their home countries no choice but to attempt a dangerous escape to sea -- often in small, unstable vessels like inflatable rafts and rubber dinghys.
The migrant crisis has become a controversial issue in some European countries like Italy and Spain as the governments spar over whether the refugees will be allowed to reach shore. The UNHCR report urged all nations involved to help ease the suffering.
"Saving lives at sea is not a choice, nor a matter of politics, but an age-old obligation," UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi said. "We can put an end to these tragedies by having the courage and vision to look beyond the next boat, and adopt a long-term approach based on regional cooperation, that places human life and dignity at its core."
The death toll continues to climb in January.
On Tuesday, two migrant boats from Djibouti sank when they hit heavy seas off the Arabian Peninsula. At least 28 refugees died and 130 are missing.
Earlier this month, 100 refugees were dead or missing in one incident, in which a rubber dinghy capsized two days after leaving the Libyan coast.
When countries block boats from docking, it leaves large numbers of migrants stranded on docks or at sea. Non-governmental organizations are restricted in their search and rescue abilities and sometimes refugees are forced to return to their native lands to again face violence -- like sexual assault and kidnapping for ransom -- or imprisonment for trying to flee.
Spain has become one of the primary entry points for refugees, which is a change from recent years. The majority, more than 58,000 people, have crossed the perilous western Mediterranean.