Monday 19 March 2018

At least 240 refugees die as dinghies sink in Med

Refugees sit on a rubber boat off the Libyan coast earlier this month. Photo: Getty
Refugees sit on a rubber boat off the Libyan coast earlier this month. Photo: Getty

Lizzie Dearden

At least 240 refugees have died in 48 hours of boat disasters in the Mediterranean as asylum seekers continue desperate attempts to reach Europe in worsening weather.

Only 15 people survived one sinking off the coast of Libya on Monday, telling rescuers around 135 people who had been packed into their rubber dinghy had drowned. At least 95 others died in a second disaster on Tuesday, with just nine bodies recovered from the water so far, pushing the death toll for 2016 over 4,500.

Survivors of the first sinking arrived on an Italian coastguard ship in the Sicilian port of Catania yesterday, where they told the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) of their ordeal.

"The survivors told us that there were about 150 people on board, so there would be about 135 missing," spokesperson Iosta Ibba said.

On Tuesday, an oil tanker was dispatched by Italian commanders to another capsized dinghy and rescued 23 of more than 120 people who had set out from Libya.

They were plucked out of the water and transferred to the Aquarius humanitarian ship run by SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to be taken to Italy.

Jugend Rettet (Saving Youth), a German NGO, said its vessel had recovered dead bodies from the water but the vast majority of refugees killed in boat disasters are never found or identified.

A survivor told a member of SOS Mediterranée staff that the dinghy had begun to sink at 6am, four hours before the tanker arrived.

"We were 122 on the boat, no children under 15, but there were 10 women travelling with us and only one survived," the survivor said.

"We waited in the water, taking any floating thing to remain afloat, but most of the people drowned, including my little brother. He was 15. At 10am, the tanker came and rescued us. I want to call home to tell them that my brother died."

People smugglers have continued to launch overcrowded boats from the Libyan coast despite worsening weather conditions, seeing a string of tragedies in recent weeks.

Also on Tuesday, the Aquarius was called to a deflating refugee dinghy off the coast of Libya that had been at sea for 12 hours. Rescuers arrived to find the boat filled with water and sinking, with panicking refugees jumping into the water, including one person who the team could not prevent from drowning.

Five dead bodies were found on the boat and a 10-year-old boy and a woman had to be evacuated by helicopter for emergency medical attention, while 114 survivors were treated for hypothermia, fuel inhalation and chemical burns.

Irish Independent

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