ROME: The UN refugee agency said on Wednesday it feared around 500 migrants from Africa had drowned in the Mediterranean, in what could be one of the worst tragedies since the start of the refugee crisis in Europe.
Survivors who were spotted drifting at sea before being picked up by a passing merchant ship on April 16 told the UNHCR many migrants drowned when human traffickers tried to transfer people on to another, already overcrowded vessel somewhere between Libya and Italy.
The latest reported deaths come as Europe struggles to find a way of stemming the flow of people fleeing war, poverty and persecution in what has become the continent’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
“The survivors told us that they had been part of a group of between 100 and 200 people who departed last week from a locality near Tobruk in Libya on a 30-meter (100-foot) boat,” the UNHCR said in a statement.
“After sailing for several hours, the smugglers in charge of the boat attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions,” it said, adding that the larger boat then capsized and sank.
The 41 survivors—37 men, three women and a three-year-old child —included migrants who were still on the smaller ship when the one they were being transferred to capsized as well as others who had already boarded the larger ship and managed to swim back when it sank.
They are believed to have drifted at sea for up to three days before being rescued by the Philippine-flagged cargo vessel and taken to Kalamata on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.
Of those rescued, 23 were Somali, 11 Ethiopian, six Egyptian and one from Sudan, the statement said.
One of the Ethiopians said he had lost his wife and child in the sinking, according to Zoe Sakouli of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The brother of another survivor told Agence France-Presse in the Somali capital Mogadishu that the boat had left the Egyptian city of Alexandria on April 7.
“Three of my family members died at sea in this tragedy,” the man said after speaking to his brother who survived by telephone.
In what is believed to be the deadliest incident involving migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, at least 740 people were feared to have perished in April 2015 after a crammed fishing boat capsized in Libyan waters.