Some 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of the year, a 30-fold increase over the same period last year, the International Organization for Migration said Tuesday.
The grim new statistic followed the deaths of some 800 people on Sunday when a boat packed with migrants capsized near Libya in the deadliest Mediterranean shipping disaster for decades.
"Deaths have substantially, exponentially increased," IOM Deputy Director General Laura Thompson told AFP in an interview.
During the first three and a half months of 2014, only 56 migrants are known to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean, IOM said.
But while the number of arrivals in Italy so far this year is about the same as the same period last year, at about 21,000, the number of deaths has sky-rocketed 30-fold to around 1,750, it said.
IOM fears 2014's towering total of 3,279 migrant deaths on the Mediterranean could be surpassed in a matter of weeks.
"On the basis of the experience that we have from last year, ... our projection is that it (could) be somewhere around 30,000 people dying in the Mediterranean this year," Thompson said.
Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, meanwhile said Sunday's migrant boat tragedy was "the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean we have ever recorded."
Both UNHCR and IOM on Tuesday hailed a 10-point plan agreed by European Union ministers Monday to address the crisis as "a very good beginning."
Thompson though stressed the need to better balance between "the management of borders and saving people's lives."
Monday's plan among other things doubles the resources available to the EU's much-criticised maritime border patrol mission Triton.
Triton replaced Italy's own Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission, which Rome scrapped late last year after failing to persuade its EU partners to share the cost.
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- Region in crisis -
The "very important increase in the number of deaths ... confirms our fears that the replacement of the Mare Nostrum programme ... has not achieved the same capacity and the same goals of really saving lives," Thompson said.
Volker Turk, UNHCR's head of international protection, agreed, pointing out that his organisation too had "unfortunately predicted the types of scenarios that are playing out today" when Mare Nostrum was discontinued.
He urged the European heads of state and government set to gather for a summit Thursday to "give adequate attention to the search and rescue dimension of this issue."
Turk pointed out to reporters that most of those risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean were refugees fleeing violence and armed conflict.
"If you look at the numbers last year, over 50 percent of the people who crossed the Mediterranean were people in need of international protection. Mostly Syrians, Eritreans, some Somalis," he said.
And there is no end in sight to the flood of migrants.
"We believe that given the fact that there is a whole region in crisis that is adjacent to Europe, that the displacement is not going to go away. We are talking about a global displacement crisis that is playing out at the doorsteps of Europe," Turk said.
IOM spokesman Joel Millman meanwhile warned that the people smugglers appeared to be packing more and more people onto boats amid a shortage of vessels and to increase their earnings.
"If there's a real shortage of crafts they're going to do these reckless things," he told AFP.
"There is no reason not to be afraid that death rates could soar astronomically, because they are taking these measures to move people," he added.