The United Nations is investigating the sinking of an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean in what could be one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants since an estimated 800 people drowned in a shipwreck off the Libyan coast exactly one year ago.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said Wednesday that a team has interviewed survivors of the wreck to learn more about the extent of the disaster.
If confirmed, as many as 500 people may have lost their lives when the large boat went down in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy. The 41 survivors – 37 men, three women and a three-year-old child – were rescued by a merchant ship and taken to Kalamata, in the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece on April 16. Those rescued include 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, 6 Egyptians and a Sudanese.
The survivors told UNHCR staff that they had been part of a group of between 100 and 200 people who departed last week from near Tobruk in Libya on a 30-meter-long boat.
“After several hours at sea, the smugglers in charge of the boat attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions,” UNHCR said in a statement. “At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank.”
The 41 survivors include people who had not yet boarded the larger vessel, as well as some who managed to swim back to the smaller boat. They drifted at sea possibly for three days before being spotted and rescued on April 16.
UNHCR visited the survivors at the local stadium of Kalamata where they have been temporarily housed by the local authorities while they undergo police procedures.
According to UNHCR, so far this year 179,552 refugees and migrants have reached Europe by sea across the Mediterranean and Aegean. At least 761 have died or gone missing attempting the journey.