Almost 400 people have been rescued so far from a vessel which sank off the coast of Libya while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea with an estimated 600 refugees and migrants on board, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
The bodies of a further 25 people had been recovered, but dozens more were still missing and feared dead after the flimsy, overcrowded fishing vessel sank minutes after it left shore, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“Another terrible tragedy happened on the Mediterranean 15 miles off the coast of Libya, so obviously the boat was just setting off. Refugees and migrants do not deserve to die seeking a better life," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming stated.
Before this tragedy, which took place on 5 August, some 2,100 people had died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
Survivors described how the boat was packed and that people panicked when they saw a rescue boat approaching, rushing to one side and tipping the vessel over, Ms. Fleming said.
“These are boats which should only have 40-50 people on board and not 600. People were stuffed into the haul, shoulder to shoulder, feet to feet in every possible nook and cranny.”
According to people on the rescue boat, there were bodies, life jackets and debris in the water. Rescuers did what they could to save panicked and frightened people.
“No one should have to die reaching safety in Europe,” said Ms. Fleming. “The vast majority of people arriving to Europe across the Mediterranean – and there have been 200,000 this year – are people that are fleeing war and conflict and persecution.”
She blamed “ruthless and money-hungry” smugglers for packing such large numbers of people on unsuitable vessels, calling for greater funding to help address the crisis and stem the flow of “desperate” people.
“Unfortunately, we have a system where refugees in neighbouring countries they first fled to are not being assisted to the level we would like to see them assisted. This drives them to say, ‘I can't make it here and we are going to go to Europe,’” she explained.