The past few days have been the deadliest this year for people making irregular crossings on the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe, with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reporting that at least 300 people have died in successive boat tragedies.
“In all, we now believe 1,889 people have perished this year while making such journeys, 1,600 of these since the start of June,” said Melissa Fleming, UNHCR spokesperson, telling reporters in Geneva today that over the past few days, at least three vessels having overturned or sunk.
The first and largest of these incidents occurred on Friday when a boat reportedly carrying at least 270 people overturned near Garibouli to the east of Tripoli. Nineteen people, one of them a woman, survived.
“The Libyan coastguard has since recovered the bodies of 100 others, including five children under the age of five and seven women, but the remaining passengers are feared drowned,” said Fleming.
According to survivors’ reports, the boat was packed full and more people were pushed on board before they departed. The boat suddenly flipped trapping the people on the lower deck. To support the search and recovery operation, the Libyan coastguard has requested body bags, equipment, medical help and manpower.
In a second incident on the evening of Saturday, 23 August, a damaged rubber dinghy was recovered by the Italian Navy 20 miles from Libyan territorial waters. Seventy-three people were rescued, and 18 bodies recovered. Ten people are believed still missing. The passengers were mainly from Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Sudan.
In a third incident, on Sunday evening, 24 August, a fishing boat carrying roughly 400 people capsized north of the Libyan coast in bad weather conditions. The Italian navy and coastguard, in a joint operation with a nearby merchant ship, rescued 364 people. So far 24 bodies have been recovered and more are feared dead.
The main departure country for Europe is Libya, where the worsening security situation has fostered the growth of people smuggling operations, but also prompted refugees and migrants living there to risk the sea rather than remain in a zone of conflict.
“UNHCR’s Tripoli office receives daily calls from refugees, asylum-seekers and other vulnerable people expressing fear for their lives and making desperate requests for food, water, medicine and relocation. Those who choose to leave for Italy are taking longer and riskier journeys through new ports of departure such as Benghazi,” said Ms. Fleming.
This situation demands urgent and concerted European action including strengthened search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, ensuring that rescue measures are safe and incur minimum risks for those being rescued, Ms. Fleming added. As more refugees and migrants risk their lives at sea to reach Europe, mostly Eritreans, Syrians, and Somalis, urgent action is needed including in finding legal alternatives to these dangerous journeys.
In 2011 around 1,500 people died trying to cross into Europe; in 2012 around 500; in 2013 over 600 and so far in 2014 over 1,880, according to UNHCR. In 2011 an estimated 69,000 people arrived in Europe; in 2012 some 22,500; in 2013 some 60,000; so far, in 2014 124,380. As of 24 August, the majority of them – 108,172 people – arrived in Italy.
“It is of vital importance that survivors of these tragedies, who often have lost family and friends, be given immediate access to psychological support once they are disembarked. UNHCR has also called for procedures to be put in place to allow for identification of the bodies recovered at sea, providing quick and clear information so that families are not subjected to unnecessary additional suffering,” Ms. Fleming added.