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Hundreds of Migrants Feared Dead after Boat Sinks off Libyan Coast

21 April 2016 11:59


Hundreds of migrants were feared drowned after their overcrowded boat sank off Libya’s coast, aid agencies said, in what would be the deadliest disaster involving people trying to reach Europe this year.

The wreck on Wednesday refocused attention on the perilous Libya-to-Italy route, where traffic has surged in recent weeks as the weather warms and as the flow from Turkey to Greece dwindles in the wake of European Union pressure.

The EU expanded its naval patrols in the Mediterranean last year in another bid at deterrence but critics say they remain inadequate to the enormous challenge.

Forty-one survivors were rescued on Saturday by a merchant ship and transported to the Greek port of Kalamata, according to accounts given to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. They were transferred to Athens late Wednesday.

The survivors told both agencies that they departed Libya last week from the eastern city of Tobruk, but their accounts differed, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Survivors told the UNHCR that between 100 and 200 people left Libya aboard a 98-foot boat. Migrants told the IOM, however, that about 200 migrants were traveling on several small boats carrying up to 40 people each.

In accounts provided to both agencies, the migrants said that after traveling for several hours, the smugglers then attempted to transfer the passengers onto a larger vessel in the middle of the sea. The larger boat most likely came from Egypt, according to the UNHCR.

According to the IOM, that larger vessel was already overcrowded with about 300 people. Once the new group was on board, it began sinking, the IOM said.

Some passengers attempted to return to the smaller boats. The 41 rescued—from Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia—managed to board one that was adrift for three days without food or water before the Filipino merchant vessel picked them up, according to the IOM. The witnesses said most of the others died.

“The people died in a matter of minutes,” an Ethiopian man told IOM staff, according to a statement put out by the aid group. “I saw my wife and my 2-month-old child die at sea, together with my brother-in-law.”

Somalia’s Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke expressed shock and condolences. His government announced plans to take action against migrant smugglers, tightening cooperation with authorities in Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt.

“We continue to urge the youth of this country to stop this dangerous journey of death,” the prime minister said.

Unconfirmed reports of the tragedy were already circulating on Monday, the first anniversary of the sinking of a boat near the Italian island of Lampedusa, in which some 800 people drowned. Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella during a public event suggested the world reflect on “yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean in which, it seems, several hundred people have died.”

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, speaking Wednesday in Mexico, said the government is still trying to recover the wreck of that ship and the bodies in it to give them a proper burial. “Staying human before the experience of migration is a hard task,” he said.

The European Commission on Wednesday said “every life lost is one too many.” But official reaction across Europe was relatively muted, reflecting how empathy with the plight of migrants has worn thin over the past year.

The Libya-Italy route​has been overshadowed by a surge in migrants entering Europe via Greece since last summer, hoping to move on to richer Northern European countries such as Germany and Sweden.

Deaths on the Libya-Italy route tend to be higher than the Turkey-Greece route because the boats are bigger and the distance​far greater.

The condition of the boats​plying the Libyan route has deteriorated over the past couple of years as they grow scarcer and the smugglers increasingly brutal. More people are packed onto boats that often begin taking on water just after embarking, according to Italian officials.

Following the October 2013 shipwreck that killed at least 360 African migrants, Italy launched a search-and-rescue operation that pulled tens of thousands of migrants from the Mediterranean.

In late 2014, new EU patrols took over in an operation dubbed Triton. The mission was much smaller in scope—limited to within 30 miles off the Italian coast—which left the Italians still on the front line in responding to distress calls from migrants outside that boundary. Italian officials and aid organizations said Triton’s limited mandate meant more lives were lost because of delays in reaching boats in distress.

After the disaster off the Libyan coast in April 2015—the single deadliest episode in the flood of migrants trying to reach Greece and Italy in recent years—Triton was expanded into a full-blown search-and-rescue mission.

The Italians can currently call Triton’s nine ships as close as 24 nautical miles to the Libyan coast. The EU patrols were involved in rescuing more than a third of the 154,000 people pulled from the water last year on the Libya-Italy route.

Political chaos in Libya has helped fuel the flow of migrants; the country now has one of the world’s largest people-smuggling industries. Would-be migrants and refugees pay traffickers thousands of dollars to undertake the harrowing voyage to Europe.

In all, 3,771 people died or went missing trying to reach Europe in 2015, while a record one million people reached the continent’s shores, mainly via Greece and Italy, the UNHCR said.

So far this year, about 179,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea, according to the IOM. Until the latest shipwreck, 737 had gone missing or died, with the number roughly evenly divided between Italy and Greece, it said.

More than 6,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy so far this month, according to the UNHCR. Officials fear more will seek to enter via Italy following last month’s EU-Turkey deal, although they haven’t yet seen such flows materialize.

Under that deal, all migrants crossing the sea to Greece are to be returned to Turkey. In the three weeks before it was implemented, migrant arrivals on Greek islands dropped by nearly 80%, the European Commission said this week.

If the ship that capsized last week did originate in Egypt, it would mark a significant change in tactics and coordination by the smugglers in Egypt and Libya.

Egypt’s interior ministry and coast guard implemented strict controls along its Mediterranean coast in late 2014 to deter smuggling. The Egyptian foreign ministry has repeatedly said it didn’t have any knowledge of a recent capsizing since word of the latest disaster began circulating from Somali officials last week.

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