Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2017, 07:23 GMT

After packed boats take on water, 20 feared dead in Mediterranean

Publisher UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Publication Date 16 May 2017
Cite as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), After packed boats take on water, 20 feared dead in Mediterranean, 16 May 2017, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/591af66a4.html [accessed 22 November 2017]

As the rubber boat packed with men, women and children started to take on water in the choppy seas off the coast of Sicily, some threw themselves into the water in a panicked attempt to save themselves.

"We could see people in the water slowly drifting away, it was terrible," one young survivor from Mali said. "At some point we only saw life jackets, no more people," said another young man from Mali.

The pair were among 500 people plucked from the Mediterranean Sea by rescuers last week, saved from an increasingly lethal route plied by smugglers profiting from the desperation of refugees and migrants.

Reports emerging from the rescue effort between Italy and Libya suggest that around 20 men, women and children are missing and feared dead.

Information gathered by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Italy indicates that the survivors were rescued from four rubber boats on Sunday by nonprofit SeaEye and a merchant vessel called Ohio.

Among the 20 feared dead it is reported that some were crushed by other people in the panic aboard the boats, while others drowned at sea. The victims include a child, women and some men - mostly from Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Bangladesh. Seven bodies were recovered and taken with survivors to Trapani.

'The [Sea Eye] rescue crew stayed with us all day," one Sudanese survivor told UNHCR staff after disembarking at the Sicilian port of Trapani. "They kept ... repeating: 'Stay united, rescue is on its way.'"

With this latest incident, it is estimated that at least 1,364 people are now missing or dead in the Mediterranean Sea. Over the past few weeks alone, over 95 people have lost their lives.

UNHCR reiterates its call for credible alternatives to these dangerous crossings for people in need of international protection, including accessible and safe ways to reach Europe such as family reunification, resettlement and private sponsorship.

"Saving lives must be the top priority," UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told reporters at a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday (May 16).

"With continued horrifying reports of smuggler abuse, action is needed before people are caught and exposed to horrendous abuses at the hands of smugglers and before they board unsafe boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea."

Spindler said the response also requires the redoubling efforts to solve conflicts, especially in Africa; and making better use of development resources.

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