Nearly 250 refugees dead or missing after shipwrecks off Libyan coast

Nigeria, represents the largest single nationality of migrants arriving in Italy – as it did last year – followed by Bangladesh, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Gambia.

Powered by article titled “Nearly 250 refugees dead or missing after shipwrecks off Libyan coast” was written by Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, for on Tuesday 9th May 2017 16.59 UTC

The final toll of dead and missing from two refugee shipwrecks off Libya at the weekend has risen to 245, the United Nations high commission for refugees (UNHCR) has said.

Tuesday’s revised estimate is partly based on horrific accounts from hospitalised survivors, and raises the death toll in the two incidents by about 50 people.

The revised tallies suggested that 82 went missing after a shipwreck on Friday night and a further 163 are feared dead in an incident off the Libyan coast on Sunday. The International Medical Corps said a woman and six men were rescued by the Libyan coast guards in the second incident. The new figures were given by the UNHCR at a briefing in Geneva.

Overall the weekend disasters pushed the death toll on the Libya Mediterranean route for 2017 up to 1,300, while refugees and asylum seekers who successfully crossed the Mediterranean now number more than 43,000.

The increased death toll is due to the greater use of small, plastic boats and the violence of the people smugglers.

Survivors of one wreck recovering in hospital in Pozzallo in Sicily told the authorities that 140 people had been pushed from one boat on to a rubber dinghy not capable of taking more than 30, which then capsized. The dinghy had no distress signalling equipment, and its surviving occupants were rescued by a Danish cargo ship. As many as five children had died.

Filippo Grandi, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, said said that he was “profoundly shocked by the violence used by some smugglers, including the merciless killing of young man a few days ago, which was reported to my teams by survivors”.

He added: “The increasing numbers of passengers on board vessels used by traffickers – with an average of 100 to 150 people – are also alarming and the main cause of shipwrecks, and risks are increased by the worsening quality of vessels and the increasing use of rubber boats instead of wooden ones.”

Grandi has gone out of his way to praise NGOs involved in the rescue effort, saying their role was on a par with the “tireless efforts of the Italian Coast Guard, in coordination with Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.”

“In 2016, NGOs rescued more than 46,000 people in the central Mediterranean, representing over 26% of all rescue operations. This trend continues, reaching 33% since the beginning of the year,” Grandi said.

“Saving lives must be the top priority for all and, in light of the recent increase in arrivals, I urge further efforts to rescue people along this dangerous route. This is a matter of life or death which appeals to our most basic sense of humanity and should not be called into question.”

The international office of migration (IOM), the UN agency for migration, estimated the total number of deaths on the central Mediterranean route from 1 January to 7 May – before the latest disasters – at 1,222.

It added that the number of arrivals in Italy was 41,146. During the same period last year the number of deaths on the route was 966, and the number of arrivals was 31,214.

According to IOM figures, 181,000 refugees arrived in Italy in 2016. That number is forecast to top 200,000 in 2017, a figure increasingly playing a role in Italian politics ahead of critical elections due next year.

Flavio Di Giacomo, an IOM spokesman based in Rome, explained the rise in numbers. “Favourable weather between Friday and Sunday brought thousands of migrants attempting a sea crossing to escape the violence and abuse in Libya. Our field colleagues providing direct assistance at the harbours reported that many migrants bore signs of torture,” he said.

He said that in many cases, the refugees are attacked at sea by smugglers who seize their mobile phones.

Nigeria, represents the largest single nationality of migrants arriving in Italy – as it did last year – followed by Bangladesh, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Gambia.

Many other refugees under European Union policy are being returned to camps in Libya. The state of the detention centres in Libya have been repeatedly criticised, and many are privately run by smugglers with little no access for the international community.

Carmelo Zuccaro, the Catania prosecutor, told an Italian parliamentary anti-mafia commission on Tuesday that there is a “mass of money destined for migrant reception that attracts the interests of mafia organisations, and I say that on the basis of some investigative evidence”.

He added that it was “wrong to think the mafia operates everywhere, because that way we risk increasing its aura of omnipotence”.

Zuccaro caused a row last month by saying he had heard that people smugglers were funding some NGOs that rescue migrants to destabilise the Italian economy, although he had no hard evidence of this. He later insisted he was not referring to the large NGOs.

Zuccaro added in his testimony to the commission: “Last Saturday a ship with 498 migrants arrived in Catania and if there had been our police units on the NGO ship that saved them we would already have caught the traffickers and we would have them in our jails”.

The EU border control agency Frontex in a February report described the NGOs as “unintentionally” acting like a pull factor for more crossings by saving refugees close to the Libyan coast. However, Frontex says there is no evidence of collaboration between the smugglers and NGOs. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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