LONDON: Around 500 migrants from Africa are feared to have drowned in the southern Mediterranean, survivors have told the UN refugee agency.
UNHCR spoke to survivors of the shipwreck in the Mediterranean, the Guardian said on Wednesday.
A repurposed fishing boat with around 500 people on board left Libya, heading for Italy. The migrants comprised Somalis, Sudanese, Ethiopians and Egyptians.
The shipwreck is believed to be the deadliest migrant shipwreck in months.
The disaster reportedly happened several miles out to sea, after the smugglers tried to transfer a group of migrants from a smaller to a larger boat, survivors said.
The larger boat was already overburdened, and began to sink under the strain of extra passengers. “Due to the overcrowding, the large boat sank,” UNHCR said in a statement.
A Somali community leader in Egypt said that some of the dead appeared to have been part of Egypt’s Somali expatriate community.
The 41 survivors included those who had yet to be transferred from the small vessel as well as a number of those who swam back to the smaller boat after the larger one began to sink.
They include people from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt.
The survivors “claim to have been part of, and to have witnessed, a large shipwreck that took place in the Mediterranean Sea claiming the lives of approximately 500 people”, UNHCR said.
After the shipwreck, they were left to drift in the smaller boat, until they were spotted and rescued by a merchant ship on April 16 and taken to the Greek mainland. The date of the sinking is unclear.
More than 170,000 people reached Europe from Libya in 2014, while 150,000 tried the same route in 2015. Nearly 25,000 have already followed in their wake in 2016, roughly the same level as this time last year.
The shipwreck has prompted renewed calls from refugee advocates for western countries to provide safe and legal access to Europe.
UNHCR called on Europe to provide “increased regular pathways for admission of refugees and asylum seekers to manage the emergency in Europe.
“Additional possibilities for resettlement and humanitarian admission, family reunification, private sponsorship, and humanitarian and refugee student and work visas all serve to reduce demand for people smuggling, onward movement, and dangerous boat journeys.”