‘Big human tragedy’ in the Med.

April 2, 2009

A Libyan policeman distributing bread to migrants
A Libyan policeman distributing bread to migrants who were rescued yesterday
Photo Times of Malta

More than 200 illegal immigrants were presumed dead after the boat they were travelling in sunk some 30 kilometres off the Libyan coast, the International Organisation for Migration said yesterday.

The boat with 257 migrants on board sank on Sunday after high winds struck the area.

“Twenty-three people were saved and 21 bodies were retrieved,” Laurence Hart, the IOM chief of mission in Tripoli, told the AFP news agency.

He confirmed that the Libyan coastguards were also searching for two other boats believed to have gone missing in the storm. However, it was unclear whether the two other boats were fishing vessels or had migrants on board.

Another boat that found itself in difficulty was towed back to shore by Libyan rescuers.

The representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malta, Neil Falzon said this was a “big human tragedy”.

“It shows the desperation that prompts these people to leave at all costs. If an accident of similar proportions occurred somewhere in Europe, people would stop to think. Hopefully, this great loss of human lives would remind us Europeans of the gravity of the situation. Hopefully, it would help us to stop and think,” Dr Falzon told The Times.

Earlier, UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres described the sinking as “the latest tragic example of a global phenomenon in which desperate people take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty”.

The disaster occurred well within the Libyan search and rescue area and commercial vessels in the vicinity were diverted to the zone to provide assistance, local army sources said.

April normally marks the start of the immigrant season with hundreds of small rickety boats and sometimes larger overcrowded fishing boats attempting to reach European shores.

Despite the inclement weather, over the past three days around 400 immigrants landed in Sicily and a further 222 in Lampedusa, Italian media reported.

Meanwhile, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has promised that the planned joint maritime patrols between Italy and Libya would start on May 15.

With 1,770 kilometres of coastline, Libya is a popular destination country and transit point for immigrants from eastern and southern Africa heading for Europe.

In an unprecedented change in immigration patterns, during the first two months of the year more than 600 immigrants landed in Malta.

Source: timesofmalta