Saturday 24 August 2019

Dozens of drowned bodies still floating in the Med after migrant boats tragedy

Bags containing the bodies of migrants who died after their wooden boat capsized off the coast of Komas, are seen in the hangar belonging to an anti-illegal migration department in the town east of the capital Tripoli, Libya. Photo: Ayman al-Sahili/Reuters
Bags containing the bodies of migrants who died after their wooden boat capsized off the coast of Komas, are seen in the hangar belonging to an anti-illegal migration department in the town east of the capital Tripoli, Libya. Photo: Ayman al-Sahili/Reuters

Samy Magdy

Libya's coastguard has recovered dozens of bodies of migrants who died at sea as searches continued after up to 150 people went missing when their boats capsized in the Mediterranean.

Up to 350 migrants were on board the boats that capsized off the town of Khoms, around 120km east of Tripoli.

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The migrants included people from Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan and Libya, the agency said. Libyan officials said more than 130 have been rescued since last Thursday.

One of the survivors, from Eritrea, said his vessel started to capsize after an hour of sailing. Most of the migrants on board were women, he said.

"All of them who drowned were ladies... only two girls rescued themselves," he said.

Two other survivors, reached at a disembarking facility in Tripoli, said they had each paid between $200 and $400 (€180 and €360) to smugglers who promised they would reach Italy's shores by sunset on Thursday.

Ahmed al-Tayeb, a 32-year-old from Sudan, said he was on one of three boats that capsized an hour after setting off from Libya last Wednesday night.

Egyptian Mustafa Mahmoud (26) said Libyan fishermen were first to come to their rescue. "I saw lots of bodies, dozens, in the water," he said. "Most of them were children and women who were not able to swim."

At least a dozen of the survivors were taken to a hospital in Khoms while the rest were transferred to different detention centres - including Tajoura, near the front lines of the fighting between rival factions, Libyan officials said.

The Tajoura detention centre was hit by an air strike on July 3 that killed more than 50 people. The UN refugee agency has demanded the centre be closed.

The UN migration agency later said that once they arrived, the 84 migrants were turned back from the detention centre - and were instead being "released gradually" into the town of Tajoura.

Separately from the shipwreck, a spokesman for Libya's coastguard said it had intercepted three other rubber boats off Tripoli last Thursday, carrying 269 Europe-bound migrants. All were taken to refugee camps in Tripoli.

Amnesty International called on EU leaders to "show some courage" and reverse their decision to halt migrant rescues in the Mediterranean.

The EU has partnered with Libya over the past years to prevent migrants from making the dangerous journey by sea to Europe. Rights groups say those efforts have left migrants at the mercy of brutal armed groups or confined in squalid detention centres.

The EU released a statement last Friday saying it was deeply saddened by the tragedy off Libya's coast and added that "sustainable solutions for search and rescue are urgently needed in the Mediterranean".

However, it added: "Libya's current system of managing irregular migration and arbitrarily detaining refugees and migrants has to end."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated that "Libya is not a safe country of asylum", adding: "Refugees must be treated with dignity and respect, and in accordance with international law."

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