More than 75 people are feared dead after their boat capsized in stormy seas off the coast of Libya while attempting to reach Europe in one of the deadliest shipwrecks this year, according to the UN.
Fifteen survivors were rescued by local fishers and brought to the port of Zuwara in north-western Libya. They said there were about 92 people onboard the vessel when the incident took place on 17 November. Most of those who died came from sub-Saharan Africa.
According to aid workers, people smugglers are sending hundreds of people to sea this autumn, careless of stormy weather. Many of the journeys ended in tragedy.
“This November, despite the bad weather, an increasing number of migrants has departed from Libya to attempt to reach Europe,’’ said Flavio Di Giacomo, Italy’s spokesperson for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM). “These departures are dangerous even when the sea is calm, let alone in these weeks with the storms that have hit the central Mediterranean. That’s why, today more than ever, it is important that there is an immediate response to distress calls. Delaying rescue operations by up to five minutes can make the difference between the life and death of these people.’’
Last week, 10 people were found dead in the lower deck of a severely overcrowded wooden boat off the coast of Libya, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported.
According to survivors rescued by the charity’s chartered vessel Geo Barents, those who died had suffocated after 13 hours on the cramped lower deck, where there had been a strong smell of fuel.
Abdoulaye, one of the last survivors to leave the boat, barely had the time to understand what had happened to his fellow travellers before the MSF rescuers took his arm and helped him into the rescue lifeboat.
“Let me see their bodies,” he told the team. “These are my brothers. We come from the same place, we went through Libya together. I need to tell their families they are dead. Please let me see them.”
Some had to identify the body of a younger brother or friend who had died in front of them a few hours earlier.
“It was horrific and infuriating at the same time. This is another tragedy at sea that could have been avoided,” said Fulvia Conte, MSF’s deputy search and rescue team leader on the Geo Barents.
An estimated 1,300 people have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean so far this year. In April, more than 120 died in a single incident.
This autumn, since the beginning of October, nearly 170 people from Africa and the Middle East have died, overwhelmed by the waves or cold on the main migration routes attempting to reach Europe.
The volunteer-run Mediterranean rescue hotline Alarm Phone said the most recent shipwreck was a “consequence of a lethal European migration policy that does everything to prevent people from reaching Europe and that does nothing to prevent ongoing mass drowning along its borders”.
It added: “It is just a matter of time until we hear about the next shipwreck, and the one after that. We need radical political change, otherwise the Mediterranean will remain a liquid graveyard.’’