Hundreds dead as boats sink off Libya, survivors tell UN

At least 240 people killed as two boats sink in Mediterranean, survivors tell UN refugee agency on Italian island of Lampedusa

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At least 240 people are feared to have drowned in the southern Mediterranean, bringing the annual total to 4,220 – the highest in the Mediterranean on record.

About 100 people drowned when an inflatable dinghy capsized shortly after leaving the Libyan coast on Wednesday, some of the 29 survivors told the UN refugee agency. A further 140 are thought to have drowned in a second incident in another rubber boat early on Thursday morning. Only two people appear to have survived the second tragedy.

The survivors’ testimonies “were all very consistent”, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, Carlotta Sami, said in a telephone interview. “They report two shipwrecks, both not far from the Libyan shore, and they report the boats were in a very bad condition. Many women, pregnant women and children were onboard, and they were in the water for hours.”

Though the numbers migrating from Turkey to Greece have dropped drastically since March after an agreement between the EU and Turkey, crossings between Libya and Italy are still at near-record levels. Nearly 160,000 people have reached Italy so far this year from Libya, already more than last year’s annual total, and within sight of the 2014 record of 170,000.

“If the trends of October continue, then we might see even higher arrivals [than in 2014],” said Sami. “Let’s see what happens in November.”

People are helped aboard the Topaz Responder ship during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea
Members of the Maltese NGO MOAS and the Italian Red Cross help people board the Topaz Responder ship during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Military missions from several European countries, including Britain, have tried to curb the Libyan smuggling industry by intercepting and destroying the smugglers’ repurposed fishing trawlers after they leave Libyan waters.

In response, the smugglers have simply turned to flimsy inflatable boats, which can be piloted by refugees themselves, and which are even more dangerous than the wooden trawlers. As a result, asylum seekers’ lives have been put at even greater risk – this year, roughly one in every 40 attempting to reach Italy by sea have died.

Syrians appear to have stopped using the Libyan route. Most of the migrants and refugees this year have fled war and poverty in Nigeria and Sudan, or dictatorships in Eritrea and Gambia. Others are migrant workers who tried to find jobs in Libya but fled after a civil war broke out and law and order collapsed.

People are helped into a small rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea
People are helped into a small rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

In this context, many claim the dangerous sea journey is the least worst option facing them, due to the dire situation in Libya. “A dead goat doesn’t fear the butcher’s knife,” quipped one person in Libya during an interview with the Guardian last year.

Many are kept in slavery-like conditions by their Libyan employers, while others are tortured or extorted, sometimes by the authorities. About 70% say they faced some kind of exploitation in Libya, according to research by the International Organisation for Migration.

Some European politicians have previously argued that the Mediterranean rescue missions, stationed off the Libyan coast, encourage more people to risk the journey. But while many more would drown without the presence of the rescue boats, there is no evidence that their absence would drive down numbers.

When EU-led rescue missions were suspended in early 2015, more migrants and refugees attempted the journey than ever before, and more drowned. Guardian interviews at the time suggested that both migrants and smugglers were unaware of the existence of the rescue missions. – The Guardian

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