UNHCR says around 500 refugees drowned in Mediterranean last week following sinking of overcrowded ship

In this photo taken on Sunday, April 17, 2016 refugees ask for help from a dinghy boat as they are approached by the SOS Mediterranee's ship Aquarius, background, off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. [AP]
In this photo taken on Sunday, April 17, 2016 refugees ask for help from a dinghy boat as they are approached by the SOS Mediterranee's ship Aquarius, background, off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. [AP]

Up to 500 refugees might have drowned in the Mediterranean last week when human traffickers crammed people onto an already overcrowded ship, causing it to sink, the UN refugee agency said on Wednesday.

The survivors said that they had been among 100 to 200 people who had set sail from Libya last week going to Italy. After several hours at sea the traffickers tried to move them onto a bigger ship that was already packed with refugees somewhere between Libya and Italy.

UNHCR agency spokesperson William Spindler said the eyewitnesses estimated that up to 500 people might have perished.

"We don't know exactly how many were there on that boat and they have now disappeared from the face of the earth," he said. "This is another example of what is happening almost in a daily basis in the Mediterranean."

It would be the worst such tragedy in 12 months and bring the total number of refugees drownings in the southern Mediterranean to nearly 800 so far this year.

It said the survivors consisted of 37 men, three women and a three-year-old child and were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. They were taken to Kalamata, Greece, on April 16.

They are believed to have drifted at sea for up to three days before being rescued by the Philippine-flagged cargo vessel and taken to Kalamata on the Peloponnese Peninsula in southern Greece, the statement reported.

One of the survivors, Ethiopian Mohamed, told the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that his wife, two-month-old child and brother-in-law had died in the sinking.

"The boat was going down, down. All the people died in a matter of minutes. After the shipwreck we were drifted at sea for a few days, without food, without anything," the IOM quoted him as saying.

The Somali government announced on Monday that it believed that some 200 of the dead were from Somalia. It added that the capsized boat had originally set sail from Egypt.

UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler added the eyewitnesses estimated that up to 500 people might have perished.

"We don't know exactly how many were there on that boat and they have now disappeared from the face of the earth," he said. "This is another example of what is happening almost in a daily basis in the Mediterranean."

Some 150,000 refugees reached Italy by boat in 2015, the vast majority sailing from Libya. So far this year, about 25,000 refugees have arrived, an increase of 4.7 percent over the same period last year, according to Interior Ministry data. News of the disaster came after the first anniversary of one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean, when an estimated 800 refugees drowned off in April, 2015 after a crammed fishing boat capsized near the Libyan coast.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies