Shipwreck claims the lives of at least 43 migrants off the coast of Libya

By Kaamil Ahmed

At least 43 people have been killed after a boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, the UN said on Wednesday.

Ten people survived the shipwreck, which happened after the boat’s engine failed a few hours after departing the coastal city Zawiya, west of the capital Tripoli, on Tuesday morning.

A joint statement by the UN’s migration and refugee agencies said it was the first shipwreck involving migrants in the central Mediterranean this year. Hundreds died in similar incidents in 2020.

A spokesperson for Alarm Phone, which communicates with migrants and refugees in distress at sea, said the incident was a result of European border policy.

“We have a huge rescue gap because most of the rescue vessels are under administrative detention or under some kind of investigation in Europe so most can’t go out to sea,” they said.

They said the only rescue NGO currently able to operate was SOS Méditerranée, and it faces challenges in reaching migrants.

In a separate incident on Wednesday the NGO said it was unable to rescue 48 people stranded on another inflatable boat before the Libyan coastguard returned them to Libya. The interception, criticised for returning the migrants to dangerous environments, was observed by an aircraft operated by rescue group Sea-Watch, whose own rescue ships are unable to go to sea.

SOS Méditerranée’s Ocean Viking was only able to return to sea on 11 January, six months after it had been detained by Italian authorities.

Currently six NGO ships are unable to operate, Alarm Phone said.

In April last year Italy declared its ports “unsafe” for arrival due to the Covid-19 outbreak and said it would not accept migrants.

The UN said attitudes needed to change on migrants from the Mediterranean, including an end to the policy of returning them to unsafe countries.

“This loss of life highlights once more the need for reactivation of state-led search and rescue operations, a gap NGO and commercial vessels are trying to fill despite their limited resources,” the statement said.

The EU has been accused by rights groups of condemning refugees and migrants to death in the Mediterranean through its border policies and by supporting Libyan militias to intercept and return boats to the coast.

The EU border agency Frontex was accused in October of being involved in illegal pushbacks to sea by member states. In November it announced it would launch a committee to evaluate its surveillance on the Mediterranean.