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UN Ask Mariners to Aid Libyan Refugees in Mediterranean

A migrant carries a suitcase after arriving at the port in Benghazi from the besieged Libyan city of Misrata, May 5, 2011
A migrant carries a suitcase after arriving at the port in Benghazi from the besieged Libyan city of Misrata, May 5, 2011

The United Nations refugee agency is appealing to European states and Mediterranean boat captains to rescue people fleeing Libya by sea. This appeal comes just days after a ship carrying 600 people sank soon after departing from Tripoli. 

The U.N. refugee agency says it is very concerned by the growing death toll of those fleeing war-torn Libya via the Mediterranean Sea. It says an increasing number of people are leaving in unseaworthy vessels and then encountering problems.  Their distress calls often either draw no response or go unheard.

The latest tragedy came when an overcrowded boat capsized shortly after leaving the Libyan capital on Friday.  At least 16 bodies, including two babies, reportedly have been recovered, but the U.N. believes there were many more drowning victims.  

The flimsy vessel was crammed with more than 600 passengers - most believed to be either immigrants to Libya or temporary workers from sub-Saharan African countries who were stranded when the uprising there began.

The U.N. has heightened the urgency of its appeal to European states and to ships in the Mediterranean to act on the maritime tradition that obliges seafarers to rescue people in distress.  

“Any boat that is leaving Libya should be considered at first glance as a boat in need of assistance," said U.N. spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. "Basically, we believe that all of these boats are carrying people who are trying to escape, many of whom are also weakened by the conflict.  And please do not wait for a call of distress.  We are appealing - please, just go to the boat, see if they need assistance and if they do, please rescue them.”  

The U.N. reports 12,360 refugees from Libya have arrived in Italy and Malta.  Since March 25, at least 800 people did not make it to a safe harbor.  That casualty list does not include anyone from the boat that went down last week with 600 people aboard.

Fleming says such a great loss of lives in less than two months, across heavily trafficked sea lanes, cannot have escaped mariners' notice.

“Given the conflict in Libya, it is being heavily patrolled," she said. "So we believe that something needs to be improved to ensure that no more lives are lost. We should consider [the sea] a border just like the Tunisian border or just like the Egyptian border, where people are able to safely make it across and achieve some form of safe refuge. This is actually probably one of the most dangerous means of escaping Libya right now.” 

The International Organization for Migration says those who risk their lives to board rickety smugglers' boats are also, in many cases, victims of exploitation and abuse.  

Refugees usually pay hundreds of dollars to leave Libya by sea.  But more and more, the migration organization says, travelers meet even worse treatment.  Too often they are stripped of all belongings - their money, their luggage, their mobile phones - by unscrupulous ship operators.

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