Shipwreck off Libya’s coast threatens to be deadliest incident in the Mediterranean this year.
More than 100 Europe-bound migrants and refugees are feared drowned after the boat they were travelling in capsized off Libya’s coast in the Mediterranean Sea.
The boat was carrying 250 people when it sank off the town of al Khoms, about 120km east of the capital, Tripoli, a spokesman for the Libyan navy, Ayoub Qasim, told the dpa news agency on Thursday before adding that 134 migrants and refugees were rescued.
However, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a Twitter post on Thursday that more than 150 people were feared drowned while 145 were rescued and returned to Libya after the incident.
“The worst Mediterranean tragedy of this year has just occurred,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said the survivors were picked up by local fishermen and then taken back to shore by the Libyan coastguard.
Libya is one of the main departure points for migrants and refugees fleeing poverty and war in the Middle East and Africa and attempting to reach Europe by boat via the Mediterranean.
Those who make the journey often travel in overcrowded and unsafe vessels.
Nearly 700 deaths have been recorded in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the IOM, almost half as many as the 1,425 registered in 2018.
An estimated 6,000 refugees and migrants are held in detention centres across Libya, while some 50,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers reside elsewhere in the country, according to the UNHCR.
The UN has repeatedly cautioned the conflict-wracked sprawling North African country is not a safe place for migrants and refugees to be held in and called for those in detention centres to be released.
It has also urged the European Union to drop its policy of backing the Libyan coastguard to intercept and forcibly return people caught while trying to cross to Europe from the country.
The EU ended its naval patrols in the Mediterranean in March due to disagreements on how rescued individuals should be divided among EU member states.
The decision came amid resistance to the naval operations from Italy, whose far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini rejected the existing arrangement whereby most of those rescued at sea were taken to Italian ports.
Salvini, who is also Italy’s deputy prime minister, has also moved to shut the nation’s ports to charity rescue vessels, threatening transgressors with fines of tens of thousands of euros and the impounding of their vessels.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in recent days slammed the EU’s approach, saying the “suffering” of migrants and refugees in Libya and “deaths” of others in the Mediterranean were “preventable”.
“Politicians would have you believe that the deaths of hundreds of people at sea, and the suffering of thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya, are the acceptable price of attempts to control migration,” MSF’s head of mission for search and rescue and Libya, Sam Turner, said in a statement on Sunday.
“The cold reality is that while they herald the end of the so-called “European migration crisis”, they are knowingly turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis these policies perpetuate in Libya and at sea,” he added.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES
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