In the deadliest incident the Mediterranean has seen this year, hundreds of asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe drowned last week when their overcrowded boat sank off the coast of Libya, prompting alarm and harsh critique of European refugee policy from rights groups.
"My wife and my baby drowned in front of me."
—Muaz, a survivorThe United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) reported Wednesday that it had interviewed survivors of "what could be one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants in the last 12 months."
"If confirmed, as many as 500 people may have lost their lives when a large ship went down in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy. The 41 survivors (37 men, three women, and a three-year-old child) were rescued by a merchant ship and taken to Kalamata, in the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece on 16 April. Those rescued include 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, 6 Egyptians, and a Sudanese," UNCHR wrote.
The survivors drifted at sea for several days before they were rescued on April 16. It is unclear on exactly what date the shipwreck occurred.
The survivors told us that they had been part of a group of between 100 and 200 people who departed last week from a locality near Tobruk in Libya on a 30-metre-long boat.
After sailing for several hours, the smugglers on charge of the boat attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions. At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank.
"Two hundred and forty of us set off from Libya but then the traffickers made us get on to a bigger wooden boat around 30m in length that already had at least 300 people in it," said Abdul Kadir, a Somali, to the BBC.
"My wife and my baby drowned in front of me," an Egyptian named Muaz told the broadcaster. "I was one of the few who managed to swim back to the smaller boat."
The rescue occurred just two days before the one-year anniversary of the most fatal migrant shipwreck the Mediterranean has ever seen, which also involved an overcrowded and capsized vessel transporting asylum seekers to Europe. Over 800 people died.
"The crossing between Libya and Italy is the deadliest sea route in the world and the death toll for the current year has already reached 219 people. Regardless, nearly 10,000 people attempted to use this route to reach Europe in March alone. Total arrivals to Italy in the first quarter of 2016 are almost double the number of arrivals in the same period in 2015," Oxfam wrote on the anniversary of last year's wreck.
Nearly 25,000 refugees and migrants have traveled by sea to Europe from Libya so far this year, according to the UN's Refugee Agency. The International Organization for Migration estimates that almost 180,000 have reached Europe by a sea route in 2016, resulting in 737 fatalities in this year alone.
These numbers were released before the UN's report on this latest disaster, and so do not include the hundreds who died last week.
Europe's handling of the survivors of the deadly shipwreck also highlights the bizarre particularities of the EU-Turkey deal on refugees: "While the deal has made it harder for people to reach Greece, other routes to Europe exist—including from Libya," notes the Guardian, and because the EU has not negotiated a deal with war-torn Libya, the refugees rescued from the shipwreck will not be deported. Had they been traveling from Syria, they would be subject to such deportations.
Rights groups say such deportations violate international law. Critics also charge that dangerous trips such as the disastrous one from Libya will continue to be attempted in the future, as asylum seekers hope to circumvent the deportations mandated by the controversial deal.
And as Libya continues to descend into chaos in the wake of 2011's disastrous U.S.-backed intervention, hundreds of thousands of Libyans are poised to risk the sea crossing into Europe as summer approaches and weather conditions improve, reports the Telegraph.
Moreover, notes Oxfam, "before people even reach the Mediterranean crossing points [in Libya], many are left traumatized due to traffickers' abuse in North Africa. According to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, migrants detained in the country often face torture, beatings, and forced labor. Recently four migrants were shot dead and 20 wounded while trying to escape a detention center."
Europe has failed entirely to respond to the crisis in a humanitarian fashion, Oxfam argues: "The EU’s response to the Lampedusa drownings this time last year and the Mediterranean crisis as a whole has yielded successive emergency summits, beefing up Europe's border security and bringing in a 'hotspot' plan for Italy and Greece where asylum claims are expedited with a focus on swift rejections."
On Twitter, people expressed outrage and alarm over Europe's role in this most recent tragedy:
— Harry Leslie Smith (@Harryslaststand) April 20, 2016
— Marianna Karakoulaki (@Faloulah) April 20, 2016
— Nick Dearden (@nickdearden75) April 20, 2016