Up to 70 refugees feared drowned as migrant boat capsizes off Tunisian coast

Fishing boats rescue 16 others following deadliest Mediterranean sinking in months

Adam Forrest
Friday 10 May 2019 18:04
Migrant boat leaving Libyan coast in August 2017
Migrant boat leaving Libyan coast in August 2017

As many as 70 migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya are believed to have died after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.

The migrant boat sent a distress signal off the Tunisian city of Sfax early on Friday morning, according to a statement from Tunisia’s defence ministry.

Between 60 and 70 people drowned, an official in Tunisia told Associated Press, with three dead bodies recovered since the sinking of the boat.

Tunisian state news agency TAP said fishing boats in the area had rescued 16 people. The survivors are now being questioned and cared for by Tunisian authorities.

An official with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said the group included people from Bangladesh and Morocco, among other nationalities.

The IOM called Friday’s incident the deadliest migrant boat sinking since January. Joel Millman, spokesman for the UN agency, said the reported death toll is the largest number of people killed since a 19 January sinking in which 117 people were reported missing and presumed dead.

The drownings happened as migrant arrivals to Europe are decreasing. So far this year, 17,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea, about 30 percent fewer than the 24,000 arriving during the same period last year, according to the IOM.

It said 443 people have reportedly died on dangerous Mediterranean crossings so far this year, compared to 620 deaths for the same period in 2018.

Libya’s navy said on Friday that it had rescued 213 Europe-bound African and Arab migrants off the Mediterranean coast this week. It said they were handed over to Libyan police after having received humanitarian and medical aid.

The north African country became a major conduit for migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after an uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Despite current conflict there, Libyan authorities have stepped up efforts to stem the flow of migrants, with European assistance.

But human rights groups have strongly criticised Libya for its detention centres, saying migrants who failed to make the crossing to Europe and sent back to Libya faced hunger, beatings, torture, rapes and a lack of medical care.

Further instability has emerged since the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army launched an offensive against the government in the Libyan capital of Tripoli last month.

The UN health agency says 443 people have died, 2,110 have been wounded and nearly 60,000 have been displaced by the violence.

Additional reporting by agencies

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