The United Nations refugee agency said today that as many as 500 people may have lost their lives this past week when an overcrowded boat carrying refugees and migrants sank in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy.
The 41 survivors of the incident – which, if confirmed, could be one of the worst involving refugees and migrants in the past 12 months – include 37 men, 3 women and a 3-year-old child who were rescued by a merchant ship and taken to Kalamata, in the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece, on 16 April, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a press release.
Those rescued include 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, 6 Egyptians and a Sudanese.
The survivors told UNHCR staff that they had been part of a group of between 100 and 200 people who departed last week from a locality near Tobruk in Libya on a 30-metre-long boat.
“After several hours at sea, the smugglers in charge of the boat attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions,” UNHCR said. “At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank.”
The survivors include people who had not yet boarded the larger vessel, as well as some who managed to swim back to the smaller boat. They drifted at sea possibly for three days before being spotted and rescued, the agency said.
UNHCR visited the survivors at the local stadium of Kalamata, where they have been temporarily housed by local authorities while they undergo police procedures.
Thus far this year, 179,552 refugees and migrants have reached Europe by sea across the Mediterranean and Aegean. At least 761 have died or gone missing attempting the journey, UNHCR said.
The agency reiterated a call for increased regular pathways for the admission of refugees and asylum-seekers to Europe, including resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes, family reunification, private sponsorship and student and work visas for refugees.
“These will all serve to reduce the demand for people smuggling and dangerous irregular sea journeys,” UNHCR said.