Death toll from two migrant shipwrecks off Libya rises to 245

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2017, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2017, 1:20pm

The final toll of dead and missing from two refugee shipwrecks off Libya at the weekend has risen to 245, the United Nations high commission for refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.

The revised estimate is partly based on horrific accounts from hospitalised survivors, and raises the death toll in the two incidents by about 50 additional migrants.

The revised tallies suggested that 82 went missing after a shipwreck on Friday night and a further 163 are feared dead in an incident off the Libyan coast on Sunday. The International Medical Corps said a woman and six men were rescued by the Libyan coast guards in the second incident. The new figures were given by the UNHCR at a briefing in Geneva.

Overall the weekend disasters pushed the death toll on the Libya Mediterranean route for 2017 up to 1,300, while refugees and asylum seekers who successfully crossed the Mediterranean now number more than 43,000.

The increased death toll is due to the greater use of small, plastic boats and the violence of the people smugglers.

Survivors of one wreck recovering in hospital in Pozzallo in Sicily told the authorities that 140 people had been pushed from one boat on to a rubber dinghy not capable of taking more than 30. It then capsized. The dinghy had no distress signalling equipment, and its surviving occupants were rescued by a Danish cargo ship. As many as five children had died.

Filippo Grandi, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, said said that he was “profoundly shocked by the violence used by some smugglers, including the merciless killing of young man a few days ago which was reported to my teams by survivors.

“The increasing numbers of passengers on board vessels used by traffickers – with an average of 100 to 150 people – are also alarming and the main cause of shipwrecks, and risks are increased by the worsening quality of vessels and the increasing use of rubber boats instead of wooden ones.”

Grandi has gone out of his way to praise NGOs involved in the rescue effort, saying their role was on a par with the “tireless efforts of the Italian Coast Guard, in coordination with Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.”

“In 2016, NGOs rescued more than 46,000 people in the central Mediterranean, representing over 26 per cent of all rescue operations. This trend continues, reaching 33 per cent since the beginning of the year,” Grandi added.

“Saving lives must be the top priority for all and, in light of the recent increase in arrivals, I urge further efforts to rescue people along this dangerous route. This is a matter of life or death which appeals to our most basic sense of humanity and should not be called into question.”

The international office of migration (IOM), the UN agency for migration, estimated the total number of deaths on the central Mediterranean route from January 1 to May 7 – before the latest disasters – at 1,222.

It added that the number of arrivals in Italy was 41,146. During the same period last year the number of deaths on the route was 966, and the number of arrivals was 31,214.

According to IOM figures, 181,000 refugees arrived in Italy in 2016. That number is forecast to top 200,000 in 2017, a figure increasingly playing a role in Italian politics ahead of critical elections due next year.