By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - More people died crossing the eastern Mediterranean in January than in the first eight months of last year, the International Organization for Migration said on Friday, blaming increased ruthlessness by people-traffickers.
As of Jan. 28, 218 had died in the Aegean Sea - a tally not reached on the Greek route until mid-September in 2015. Another 26 died in the central Mediterranean trying to reach Italy. Smugglers were using smaller, less seaworthy boats, and packing them with even more people than before, the IOM said.
IOM spokesman Joel Millman said the more reckless methods might be due to "panic in the market that this is not going to last much longer" as traffickers fear European governments may find ways to stem the unprecedented flow of migrants and refugees.
There also appeared to be new gangs controlling the trafficking trade in North Africa, he said.
"There was a very pronounced period at the end of the year when boats were not leaving Libya and we heard from our sources in North Africa that it was because of inter-tribal or inter-gang fighting for control of the market," Millman said.
"And now that it's picking up again and it seems to be more lethal, we wonder: what is the character of these groups that have taken over the trade?"
The switch to smaller, more packed boats had also happened on the route from Turkey to Greece, the IOM said, but was unable to explain why.
The increase in deaths in January was not due to more traffic overall. The number of arrivals in Greece and Italy was the lowest for any month since June 2015, with a total of 55,528 people landing there between Jan. 1 and Jan. 28, the IOM said.
Last year a record 1 million people made the Mediterranean Sea crossing, five times more than in 2014. During the year, the IOM estimates that 805 died in the eastern Mediterranean and 2,892 died in the central Mediterranean.
In the past few months the proportion of children among those making the journey has risen from about a quarter to more than a third, and Millman said children often made up more than half of the occupants of the boats.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)