GENEVA (Reuters) – At least 45 African migrants and refugees have perished in the Mediterranean Sea in the largest recorded shipwreck off the Libyan coast this year, U.N. agencies said on Wednesday.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in a statement disclosing Monday’s accident, called for stepping up search and rescue capacity to respond to distress calls.
“Some 37 survivors, mainly from Senegal, Mali, Chad and Ghana, were rescued by local fishermen and later detained upon disembarkation,” the statement said.
“They reported to IOM staff that 45 others, including five children, lost their lives when the vessel’s engine exploded off the coast of Zwara (Zuwahra),” it said.
War-ravaged Libya is a major route for migrants seeking to reach Europe and now hosts an estimated 654,000 of them, often living in cramped conditions with little access to health care.
The latest shipwreck brings the death toll to at least 302 on the route so far this year, the U.N. agencies’ statement said.
In recent months, hundreds of migrants have been stopped at sea and their vessels sent back to Libya despite the risk of violence there.
With Libyan state vessels taking responsibility for rescues in the absence of a European Union programme, more than 7,000 people have been returned to Libya this year, the statement said.
The IOM and UNHCR say Libya should not be classified as a safe port for migrants and that they should not have to disembark there. They want an alternative scheme to take people rescued or intercepted at sea to safe ports.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones