The U.N. refugee agency says up to 150 refugees and migrants are believed to have lost their lives Thursday in a shipwreck on the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya.
If confirmed, the UNHCR says the shipwreak will be the biggest on the Mediterranean Sea since May 2017, when 156 people died off the coast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Close to 140 survivors, mainly Eritreans and Sudanese, were pulled from the water.
UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley says the latest tragedy comes weeks after more than 50 people were killed when a detention center in Tajoura, on the outskirts of Tripoli, was hit in an airstrike.
“In addition to the shipwreck … a further 87 people were brought back to Libya by the Libyan coast guard, and 84 of them were transferred to Tajoura,” Yaxley said. “The total population in Tajoura now numbers nearly 300. This is completely unacceptable, and we call for their immediate orderly release.”
There were no search-and-rescue boats operated by nongovernmental organizations in the sea Thursday when the migrant boat ran into trouble, as hard-line governments such as Italy prohibit them from conducting these life-saving missions.
Yaxley says the crucial role of NGO boats must be acknowledged, and their efforts in saving lives must not be stigmatized nor criminalized.
“There also must now be a return of EU state search-and-rescue vessels to the Mediterranean,” he said. “We reiterate once again that no return of refugees and people rescued on the Mediterranean should be to Libya because it has no ports of safety.”
The UNHCR is calling for more action to arrest and prosecute smugglers and traffickers who profit from people’s desperation by facilitating their doomed voyages.