Shipwreck off coast of Libya; hundreds of African migrants feared dead

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) stated that over 200 Arab and African migrants are feared drowned after three boats, bound for Europe, sank in the Mediterranean in separate incidents.

No less than 21 bodies were recovered on Tuesday when the boats capsized in heavy winds and rain near Libya's coast. 23 were rescued by workers on a oil rig close by.

"A boat with 257 migrants on board sank on Sunday off the coast of Libya. Twenty-three people were saved and 21 bodies were retrieved," said the IOM chief of mission in Libya's capital of Tripoli, Laurence Hart.

Officials say that search and rescue efforts are ongoing, but that hopes of finding any more survivors are diminishing. "It is hard to imagine that there are survivors among the missing by now," Hart said.

The people aboard the boats are suspected to have been smuggled across the sea to Italy. Libya's 1.770 kilometres of coastline is a popular point of departure for migrants hoping to escape poverty and find a better life in Europe.

"This is the beginning of the smuggling season in the Mediterranean. This tragic incident illustrates, once again, the dangers faced by people caught in mixed irregular movements of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and elsewhere which every year cost thousands of lives," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond.

There has been a history of people-smuggling into Italy from Libya: almost 37,000 immigrants considered to have entered illegally landed in Italy in 2008, the Italian interior ministry reports. The figures are a 75% increase from the previous year.

Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni said that patrols on the sea would start on May 15 in an effort to curb the smuggling across the Mediterranean. "We have done everything possible to prevent arrivals. We have signed a deal with Libya and the Libyan government is committed to launch on May 15 patrols along the coasts with six vessels," he said. "Until then, we will continue to ask the Libyan authorities to intensify controls, but I guess that there will still be arrivals."