Around 60 migrants, mostly from Bangladesh, died after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on the way to Italy from Libya Thursday night, the Tunisian Red Crescent said yesterday.
Survivors told the Red Crescent that the tragedy unfolded after some 75 people who had left Zuwara on the northwestern Libyan coast late Thursday on a large boat were transferred to a smaller one that sank off Tunisia, reports AFP from Tunis.
“The migrants were transferred into a smaller inflatable boat which was overloaded, and 10 minutes later it sank,” Mongi Slim, a Red Crescent official in the southern Tunisian town of Zarzis, told the news agency.
The boat sank 65 km off the coast of Sfax, south of the capital Tunis. Fishing boats rescued 16 people and brought them to shore in Zarzis, according to the Red Crescent.
It said the bodies of migrants would take days to surface.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) called it the deadliest migrant boat sinking since January.
The Red Crescent official said the survivors had spent eight hours trapped in the cold sea before being spotted by fishermen who alerted the Tunisian coastguard.
Three bodies were plucked out of the waters on Friday, the Tunisian defence ministry said.
According to survivors, the Italy-bound boat had on board only men, including 51 Bangladeshis, three Egyptians, several Moroccans, Chadians and other Africans.
Fourteen Bangladeshis, including a minor, were among the survivors, said the Red Crescent.
The Bangladesh embassy in Tripoli could not confirm the identifies of the victims till filing of this report at 1:30am today.
“We are not able to confirm the identities instantly. We would need some time,” ASM Ashraful Islam, counsellor (labour) at the embassy, told The Daily Star last night over phone.
He said it would be difficult to identify the dead as their bodies are deformed by the time those are recovered.
Red Crescent official Slim said there wouldn’t have been any survivors and people would have never known about this boat sinking if the fishermen hadn’t seen the migrants.
Charity ships have plied the Mediterranean Sea to rescue migrants in large numbers, but the number of rescue operations have dwindled as these vessels have come under fire, namely from the populist Italian government, over their action.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has imposed a “closed ports” policy, refusing to allow migrants rescued at sea to enter his country.
The UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, has called for stepped up search and rescue operations to avoid future tragedies in the Mediterranean, which it calls the “world’s deadliest sea crossing”.
“Across the region we need to strengthen the capacity of search and rescue operations,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR special envoy for the Mediterranean.
“If we don’t act now, we’re almost certain to see more tragic events in the coming weeks and months,” he warned.
A PERILOUS JOURNEY
According to the UNHCR, the journey across the Mediterranean “is becoming increasingly fatal for those who risk it”.
In the first four months of this year, one person has died (crossing the Mediterranean) for every three that have reached European shores, after departing from Libya, it said.
Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi, has long been a major transit route for migrants desperate to reach Europe.
There were fears of further migrant crisis in the Mediterranean with the escalation in fighting between the UN-backed Libyan government and Libyan National Army (LNA) since early last month as the LNA was trying to take control of Tripoli.
Since then, the Bangladesh embassy in Tripoli has relocated some 300 of its nationals from the suburbs of the Libyan capital to some safe places in the city, said Counsellor (labour) Ashraful.
He said many migrants were reluctant to return home as they spent a hefty amount of money for migration.
The official said some 20,000 Bangladeshis could be living in Libya.
Some 36,000 Bangladeshis were repatriated from Libya after the crisis began in the North African country in 2011. Three years later, Bangladesh stopped sending workers there.
But manpower brokers in Bangladesh in cooperation with their gangs in Libya and other countries continued to send workers to Libya via the UAE, Egypt of Sudan, thanks to lax law and order in Libya, said Bangladeshi law enforcers.
The IOM says as many as 443 migrants either died or went missing in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe in boats as of May 8 this year. The figures were 2,299 in 2018 and 3,139 in 2017.
The UN agency says 21,645 migrants, including 17,000 via sea and the rest via land, arrived in Europe as of May 8 this year. The figures were 390,432 in 2016, 186,768 in 2017 and 144,166 in 2018.
According to European Union, there are some 100,000 undocumented Bangladeshis in Europe.