At least 74 migrants died on Thursday in a “devastating” shipwreck off the Libyan coast, the United Nations said, most recently in a flood of sinking migrant ships in the central Mediterranean region.
This year, boats have resurfaced in the central Mediterranean, a well-worn but often fatal route for those looking to travel to Europe, mainly from Libya and neighboring Tunisia.
The International Organization for Migration of the United Nations reported in a statement on “a devastating shipwreck which today killed at least 74 migrants off the coast of Khoms”. The coast guard and fishermen were looking for survivors.
Khoms is a port city 120 kilometers west of the Libyan capital Tripoli.
The IOM called it the latest in a “series of tragedies” that have involved at least eight other shipwrecks in the Mediterranean since early October.
“The boat was reported to carry over 120 people, including women and children,” the IOM said, adding that 47 survivors were brought ashore and 31 bodies were recovered.
The IOM said at least 19 other people, including two children, drowned in the past two days after two boats capsized in the central Mediterranean.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 20,000 migrants have died in the past seven years.
Human traffickers have taken advantage of the ongoing violence in Libya since the fall of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, turning the country into an important corridor for migrants fleeing war and poverty to find their way desperate to Europe.
While many drowned at sea, thousands were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, supported by Italy and the EU, and returned to Libya.
Most of them end up in custody, often under dire conditions.
Rights groups have denounced the policy and the IOM has campaigned to end returns to the North African country 300 kilometers from the Italian coast.
“The increasing loss of life in the Mediterranean region reflects the inability of states to take decisive action to redeploy much-needed, dedicated search and rescue capabilities on the world‘s deadliest crossing,” said Federico Soda, Libya IOM head of mission.
“We have long called for the apparently impractical approach to Libya and the Mediterranean to be changed, including ending returns to the country and establishing a clear disembarkation mechanism, followed by solidarity with other states.
“Thousands of vulnerable people continue to pay the price for inaction both at sea and on land.”
The most recent shipwreck came as the Libyans in Tunisia on Thursday worked out the powers of a proposed interim government in UN-led talks to end a brutal decades-long conflict.
Since Kadhafi’s fall and assassination, oil-rich Libya has been ravaged by chaos and violence, with rival governments in the east and west vying for control of the country.
Political talks in Tunisia follow a ceasefire agreement that was signed in October and take place when military talks were held in Sirte, Kadhafi’s hometown, also conducted by the United Nations.
The IOM said at least 900 people had drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year to reach Europe’s shores – some due to delays in rescue.
More than 11,000 others were returned to Libya “to put them at risk of human rights abuses, imprisonment, abuse, human trafficking and exploitation”.
The IOM said it recently saw an increase in departures from Libya, with around 1,900 intercepted and returned since early October and more than 780 arriving in Italy from Libya.
The humanitarian ship Open Arms rescued around 100 migrants on Wednesday when their boat capsized and killed five people on board, the charity said.
The humanitarian ship is currently the only one in the Mediterranean, others are operated by non-governmental groups who are detained in Italian ports for various reasons.