Sunday 26 February 2017

Up to 240 migrants drown as dinghies capsize

Coleen Barry Milan

A Medecins Sans Frontieres team distributes lifejackets during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: AP
A Medecins Sans Frontieres team distributes lifejackets during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: AP

Survivors said as many as 240 people have died in two shipwrecks off Libya, the UN refugee agency said yesterday, bringing this year's toll to more than 4,220 migrants dead or missing in hazardous Mediterranean Sea crossings, the highest count on record.

Carlotta Sami, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Italy, said 31 survivors of two shipwrecks who arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa reported that the rubber dinghies they were travelling in had capsized on Wednesday in heavy seas shortly after leaving Libya.

The first dinghy - which carried around 140 people, including six children and about 20 women, some pregnant - sank when wooden planks laid at the bottom broke, causing the dinghy to capsize 40km off the Libyan coast, the UNHCR said. Twenty-nine people were rescued and 12 bodies were recovered.

In a separate operation, two women found swimming at sea told rescuers that 128 other people had died in their wreck. UNHCR emphasised that the number of dead was an estimate.

International agencies rely heavily on survivor accounts to tally the number of people dead or missing in the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in smugglers' boats. Often the boats sink in high seas, where it is impossible to recover bodies.

In both cases reported yesterday, most people on board appeared to have been sub-Saharan Africans.

UNHCR said the increased number of deaths this year was partly due to the fact that smugglers were often using rubber dinghies, which are prone to capsizing.

Irish Independent

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