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500 Migrants May Have Died in Sinking of Boat in Mediterranean, U.N. Says
The United Nations refugee agency said on Wednesday that 500 people may have died in the choppy waters of the Mediterranean last week, when a large boat packed with migrants from Africa and the Middle East capsized in an unknown location between Libya and Italy.
The agency based its findings on interviews with 41 survivors of the shipwreck, although it was not able to verify the episode independently. The migrants — 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, six Egyptians and a Sudanese — were picked up by a merchant ship near Greece on April 16 after days of drifting at sea. They were transferred to a migrant camp in Kalamata, a city on the Greek mainland.
Their stories helped lift a cloud of confusion about the episode ever since rumors of the sinking emerged over the weekend. But they did not resolve the questions of where the ship went down or what the ultimate death toll may be. No national coast guards have reported finding the boat.
If accurate, however, the testimonies suggest that human smugglers are operating as aggressively as ever on the Mediterranean route even as a recent European Union deal with Turkey has stemmed the flow across the Aegean Sea.
And while there is no indication that Syrians and others who had been trying to reach Greece are now employing different routes, it is clear that Africans and others remain willing to risk everything to flee repression, poverty and war.
A deal that went into effect on March 20 to deport migrants reaching Greece from Turkey has reduced the number of people coming over the Aegean, a perilous voyage that killed around 800 last year. But the policy appears to have prompted smugglers to return to previously abandoned dangerous routes through Libya to Italy — the same path used by the 800 migrants who drowned in an overloaded boat a year ago.
According to the survivors in Kalamata, a similar situation unfolded late last week, although the exact date was not clear, said William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Smugglers had arranged for a so-called mother ship to leave the Libyan coast and head toward Italy, loaded with “hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions.”
Soon afterward, a second boat about 30 yards long set off from near Tobruk, Libya, with between 100 and 200 people aboard. After several hours, it neared the larger ship, which was waiting somewhere off shore.