Hundreds of asylum seekers are feared dead after an overloaded ship sank off the Libyan coast in the southern Mediterranean last week.
If reports are confirmed, then this wreck would prove to be the most significant loss of asylum seekers, in the last 12 months.
The fishing boat, loaded by smugglers with up to 500 people, was bound for Italy when the ship sunk. Survivors told the International Organisation for Migration that the ship began to sink after passengers from smaller boats were being forced onboard.
“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 in a statement. “At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank.”
An onlooker told IOM of the tragedy of witnessing his wife, two-month-old child and brother-in-law, die in the sinking.
“The boat was going down, down. All the people died in a matter of minutes,” the IOM quoted him as saying.
“After the shipwreck we were drifted at sea for a few days, without food, without anything.”
The UNHCR said that 37 men, three women and a three-year-old child were the only survivors, after they were rescued by a passing merchant ship and taken to Kalamata.
Out of those rescued, there were 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, 6 Egyptians and a Sudanese.
The 41 survivors had been lucky enough to have not yet boarded the later vessel and were among those who managed to swim back to the smaller boat for safety.
UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler said that eyewitnesses say an estimated 500 people were on board when the ship sank.
“We don’t know exactly how many were there on that boat and they have now disappeared from the face of the earth,” he said.
“This is another example of what is happening almost on a daily basis in the Mediterranean.”
According to UNHCR, this year 179,552 refugees and migrants have reached Europe by sea after travelling across the Mediterranean and Aegean. Tragically, at least 761 have died or been listed as missing.
“UNHCR continues to 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.”