The U.N. refugee agency says an estimated 40 people drowned when their boat capsized off Libya’s coastal city of Khoms, about 100 kilometers east of the capital, Tripoli, early Tuesday morning. Some 60 people reportedly have been rescued by the Libyan coast guard and local fishermen.
U.N. refugee spokesman Charley Yaxley told VOA the UNHCR and other agencies are providing humanitarian aid and psycho-social counseling to the traumatized survivors.
“They are in a great deal of distress. Obviously, they have seen many of their fellow passengers drown…The 40 people who are understood to have drowned is an estimate at this stage. The rescue operation continues, and the final toll could be even higher,” he said.
Yaxley says survivors include refugees and migrants from Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and other nations.
The latest tragedy comes just weeks after some 150 people lost their lives in a shipwreck considered to have been the worst single incident on the Mediterranean this year. The UNHCR spokesman says Tuesday’s shipwreck off the Libyan coast brings to about 900 the number of people estimated to have died in 2019 attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Europe.
“This shocking incident now does really have to prompt action. Expressions of sympathy are no longer enough. They must translate into actions that …give people meaningful alternatives to stepping foot on these dangerous boat journeys in the first place,” Yaxley said.
The UNHCR is calling for a return of search and rescue vessels run by European Union states. At the same time, it says the restrictions being placed on non-governmental organization search and rescue operations, both at sea and in the air, should be lifted.
It says coastal states should facilitate, not impede, voluntary efforts to reduce deaths at sea. Italy and Malta are in the forefront of countries that have hardened their policies toward NGO rescue vessels.
They have refused to allow rescue ships to dock at their ports and disembark refugees and migrants who have been ‘picked up at sea. Italy has passed a law imposing a hefty fine on the vessels. And, the country’s hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is attempting to criminalize offenses.