Mediterranean migrant crisis: Hundreds feared drowned as boat capsizes after leaving Libya

The Italian Coast Guard said around 400 of the 700 people on board had been saved

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Hundreds of refugees and migrants are feared drowned after a boat carrying up to 700 people became the latest to capsize in the Mediterranean.

“It was a horrific sight, people desperately clinging to lifebelts, boats and anything they could to fight for their lives, amidst people drowning and those who had already died,” said Juan Matías, Médecins Sans Frontières project co-ordinator on the charity’s rescue ship, Dignity I.

Up to 700 people were thought to have been on board the vessel when it overturned and only about 400 had been rescued, the Italian Coast Guard and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said.

The disaster happened as a merchant ship and an Irish naval vessel were approaching to give assistance.

An Irish naval commander told state broadcaster RTE: “Our worst fear was realised when the ship capsized before our very eyes.”

More than 2,000 migrants and refugees have died so far this year in attempts to reach Europe by boat, compared with 3,279 deaths during the whole of last year, the International Organisation for Migration said.

MSF said in a statement that the “latest tragedy in the Mediterranean... underscores the severe lack of adequate search and rescue operations in the area”.

It added that “hundreds of people may have drowned”.

The charity called for “an increase in safe, legal routes to give people fleeing war, conflict and violence,  meaningful, accessible alternatives to life-threatening journeys on land and  at sea”.

Andre Heller Perache, of Médecins Sans Frontières UK, said: “The majority of people crossing the Mediterranean are fleeing war, conflict and violence – they are running for their lives, and we force them to risk their lives all over again.

“There are almost no safe, legal ways for people to reach Europe, which forces people to take dangerous journeys on land, and perilous journeys  at sea.

“People know the dangers when they board these boats yet our teams have rescued children as young as two months old from the Med.

“Imagine the desperation you would need to feel as a mother or a father to board a dangerously overcrowded boat with such a  young child.”