Over a dozen migrants trying to reach Europe drowned in the Mediterranean Sea when their small dinghy capsized off the coast of Libya, the United Nations reported Friday, the latest shipwreck to underscore the deadly risks facing those who flee the war-afflicted North African country.
Libyan fishermen spotted the sinking boat late Thursday, said the International Organization for Migration, and managed to pull 22 people from the water, including those from Egypt, Bangladesh, Syria, Somalia and Ghana.
But at least 13 of the other passengers were missing and presumed drowned. Three dead bodies were found floating in the water, including one Syrian man and woman. The boat had set off from the town of Zliten, east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, late on Wednesday.
The Libyan Coast Guard said that it had ordered the rescue, and that search teams were scouring the area for more victims.
“So many boats are leaving these days, but autumn is a very difficult season,” said Commodore Masoud Abdal Samad. “When it gets windy, it’s deadly. It changes in an instant.”
WATCH l Conflicted approach to NGO ships:
Following the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants hoping to get to Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous central Mediterranean route. At least 20,000 people have died in those waters since 2014, according to the UN.
Those who survived Friday’s disaster were taken to the Tripoli port, where they received medical care for their burns, a common consequence of leaked engine fuel mixing with saltwater, said Safa Msehli, an IOM spokeswoman.
Libyan authorities shepherded the survivors to the Zliten detention centre, run by the Tripoli-based government’s Interior Ministry. Migrants rescued at sea and returned to Libya routinely land in detention centres notorious for torture, extortion and abuse.
Amnesty International revealed in a report Thursday that thousands of migrants have been forcibly disappeared from unofficial militia-run detention centres.
The shipwreck, the second to be recorded by the UN in as many weeks, “signals the need now more than ever for state-led search and rescue capacity to be re-deployed and the need to support NGO vessels operating in a vacuum,” said Msehli.
Since 2017, European countries, particularly Italy, have delegated most search-and-rescue responsibility to the Libyan Coast Guard, which intercepts migrant boats before they can reach European waters. Activists have lamented that European authorities are increasingly blocking the work of non-governmental rescue organizations that patrol the Mediterranean and seek to disembark at European ports.
EU wants to implement new plan in face of opposition
Top migration officials from the EU on Thursday struggled to sell their new plan to overhaul the bloc’s failed asylum system amid concern they have sold out to anti-migrant governments.
Critics say the proposal focuses on rapidly deporting people who don’t qualify as refugees and persuading African countries to stop them from coming.
The program, dubbed the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, is aimed at ending years of chaos at Europe’s borders and a political crisis that has seen some EU countries turn their backs on Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, where most people seeking better lives enter.
It has already received a cautious welcome from Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, whose anti-migrant governments, along with those of Poland and Slovakia, refuse to bow to pressure to take in refugees and ease the load on their Mediterranean coastal partners.
The leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland affirmed their hardline stance at EU headquarters on Thursday.
Germany, France, Greece and Italy also see the pact as a good basis to negotiate on.
The measures, which must be endorsed by all 27 EU countries and the European Parliament, will prove a hard sell, particularly as the top migration officials want to see it approved by the end of the year.