A team from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spoke with some of the 41 survivors of the alleged accident on Tuesday who had arrived at Kalamata, a town on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula.
“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,” UN agency said on Wednesday.
One of the survivors, an Ethiopian man named Mohamed who was traveling with his family, informed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), “I saw my wife and my 2-month-old child die at sea, together with my brother-in-law. The boat was going down. All the people died in a matter of minutes.”
The survivors “drifted at sea for a few days without food, without anything,” Mohamed said. Adding to this he said “the travelers had intended to go to Italy, not Greece”.
“The testimonies we gathered are heartbreaking,” IOM Athens Chief of Mission Daniel Esdras said in a statement. “We await further investigations by authorities to better understand what actually happened and find hopefully evidence against criminal smugglers.”
As the temperature is raising and the seas becoming calmer, this tragedy might be giving a hit of yet another emergency crisis to happen next.
So far, this year, about 25,000 migrants and refugees has reached the shores of Italy from North Africa. Although those numbers are slightly more than the 24,000 who arrived during the same period last year, the United Nations and other refugee organizations are expecting more people to take rickety boats plying the risky routes across the Mediterranean to Italy.
According to the IOM, this latest tragedy would raise the number of migrants who have perished on the Mediterranean Sea’s central route between North Africa and Europe to nearly 800 this year.
In addition reported by IOM, about 380 migrants reportedly have died in 2016 on the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece, and about five migrants on the western route linking Morocco and Spain. The group’s Missing Migrants project counts about 1,200 migrants killed this year on all Mediterranean routes. Last year, through the entire month of April, the IOM reported that more than 1,730 migrants died or disappeared.
A controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey has dramatically reduced the number of refugees reaching the Greek islands. Balkan nations are closing their borders as well, preventing travel from Greece to Germany and beyond. That has triggered fears that more refugees and migrants could attempt to enter Europe from Egypt or Libya.
“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-meter-long [90-foot] boat,” the UNHCR said.
After sailing for several hours, the smugglers tried to transfer the passengers to a larger ship “carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions,” the U.N. agency said.
The agency added “At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank.”
There were 41 survivors included people who had not yet boarded the bigger ship and some who managed to swim back to the smaller boat, the UNHCR informed.