More than 340 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in just three days amid warnings of more deaths as desperate attempts to reach Europe continue.
There were only 27 survivors of the tragedy off the coast of Libya, who were plucked from the water on Wednesday by the Royal Navy’s HMS Enterprise after two-and-a-half days at sea.
They were transferred to the Bourbon Argos rescue ship operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Thursday morning.
The survivors said around 130 people had been packed into the rubber dinghy by people smugglers before it sank but only six dead bodies have been recovered so far.
Rescue workers called the latest tragedy “unbearable”, coming after the deaths of at least 240 asylum seekers in separate disasters earlier this week.
MSF said one passenger was suffering from hypothermia and four others had chemical burns.
Elisa Compagnone, the ship’s psychological first aid officer, said: “They are sad, shocked and traumatised. For the moment they prefer not to talk about what happened, they want to rest and forget for now.”
British Naval officers told MSF the boat was believed to have launched from near Tripoli in the early hours of Monday morning, being towed out by armed smugglers who then forced the 130 people on board to remove their life jackets and the dinghy’s engine at gunpoint.
“Without an engine and without lifejackets, they drifted on the sea,” a spokesperson for MSF said. “At some point something punctured the rubber boat and it started to deflate. Water started to come in and many people fell into the water and the ones who survived were rescued by the UK Navy.”
One of those on board, Abdoullae Diallo, said he was sure he would drown as the boat started to sink.
The 18-year-old, from Senegal, said: “At that moment I thought we were going to die. I knew we were not close to Italy and without an engine we could not get far, the smuggler told us we would be rescued, but I felt we were going to die.”
Only 15 people survived another sinking off the coast of Libya on Monday, telling rescuers around 135 people drowned, and at least 99 others died in a second disaster on Tuesday.
“We were 122 on the boat, no children under 15, but there were 10 women travelling with us and only one survived,” a survivor was quoted saying.
“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.”
Another five people were found dead in the bottom of a boat rescued by an SOS Méditerranée ship on Tuesday. It is thought they may have been killed by fuel inhalation or suffocation.
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration in Italy, said a further three people are feared dead after they fell overboard from a boat launched from Libya.
“We’ve never seen deaths like this in November before,” he told The Independent. “Some of the migrants arriving in Catania yesterday told us they didn’t want to leave in the conditions and they were forced by the smugglers. We don’t really know the reason, it’s not normal.
“It’s clear that they don’t really care if the migrants survive or not but launching the boats in the bad weather, it is likely they will die, so it’s very cruel.
“Rescuers are carrying out an outstanding job but it’s impossible to save them all in these conditions.”
The latest disasters push the official death toll for the Mediterranean this year above 4,600, with 2016 the deadliest year on record for migrants attempting treacherous sea crossings to Europe.
Charities say the actual toll may be far higher as many disasters are likely going unrecorded in the vast central Mediterranean, where the passage between Libya and Italy is now the deadliest in the world.
It has become the dominant sea route to Europe since the controversial EU-Turkey deal was implemented to stop arrivals over the Aegean Sea.
People smugglers have continued to launch overcrowded boats from the Libyan coast despite worsening weather conditions, with more than 3,200 people rescued from unseaworthy boats since Saturday.
Analysts have warned that EU anti-smuggling missions aiming to stop the crossings have failed, driving smugglers to pack refugees into ever smaller and more dangerous boats to evade detection.
The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a rescue charity, said efforts in the Mediterranean were becoming more challenging than ever, with humanitarian missions overwhelmed by the changing tactics of smuggling networks.
The group said gangs appeared to be “industrialising” to meet demand as conflict and lawlessness continues in Libya, where migrants report being detained, extorted and tortured before they are forced onto overcrowded boats.
More than 340,200 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year.
Around a quarter of those arriving are Syrian, followed by Afghans, Nigerians, Iraqis, Eritreans and other nationalities across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
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