By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Inadequate European naval patrols in the Mediterranean will lead to ever more deaths from an increasing tide of desperate people fleeing wars in Africa and the Middle East, aid agencies say.
Twenty-nine migrants died of hypothermia on Monday on the exposed decks of a small Italian naval vessel, which had rescued them in rough seas from a boat adrift near Libya.
The tragedy reignited criticism of a decision last year by Italy's cash-strapped government to end a full-scale search-and- rescue mission, known as Mare Nostrum.
"Bigger ships, like those used in the Mare Nostrum operation, could have easily rescued and assisted these migrants," William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration, said on Tuesday.
Criminal networks are taking advantage of chaos in Libya to load migrants and asylum-seekers onto risky vessels bound for Europe in severe winter conditions, humanitarian agencies said.
Some 3,528 migrants came by sea to Italy in January against 2,171 in the same month a year ago, with Syrians accounting for nearly a quarter, the U.N. refugee agency said. The death toll in the Mediterranean now stands at 50 against 12 a year ago.
"We just think it's a very ominous thing to have this early in the year this much activity," IOM spokesman Joel Millman told reporters. The migratory season traditionally begins in spring.
"We're seeing more and more Syrians trying to enter Europe through Greece and also flying into Sudan to try to reach Libya. So we have every expectation that these kinds of routes are going to get busier in the weeks ahead," he said.
Many migrants from Senegal, Gambia and Mali have also been fleeing to Niger and then onto Libya and Italy, he said. The victims of the latest tragedy came from sub-Saharan Africa.
Mare Nostrum was abandoned by the Italian government partly due to public concern over the 114 million euro ($129 million) cost of its first year. The European Union now runs a small mission called Triton, which has fewer ships and a reduced area of operation.
"Limiting the scope just means increasing the risk for migrants and it's going to result in more deaths," Millman said. "So obviously we'd like a much bigger footprint in this part of the world."
A much more effective rescue system is needed to cope with the scale of the outflow, the U.N. refugee agency said.
"People are making these crossings in larger numbers because they are fleeing war in larger numbers. You have conflicts to the east of Europe in Ukraine, you have conflicts to the southeast in the Syria-Iraq region, you have conflict to the south," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.
"Border policies must be designed in such a way that saving lives is the focus."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Crispian Balmer)