BRUSSELS – At least 239 migrants are believed to have drowned this week in two shipwrecks off the coast of Libya, the United Nations refugee agency said Thursday, adding to the toll in what was already the deadliest year on record in the Mediterranean Sea.
Survivor accounts suggest that two crowded boats broke up just off the Libyan coast Wednesday, said Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The 31 survivors were taken Thursday to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which has become a rescue hub amid an ever-deadlier crisis as migrants depart Africa’s northern shores trying to reach Europe.
The reports from the survivors could not be independently confirmed, but it is common for migrant ships to be filled far beyond capacity, and hundreds have perished in past sinkings. If true, the latest shipwrecks bring the toll of dead and missing in the Mediterranean to 4,220 this year, the highest on record, Sami said.
“This is an absolutely appalling figure,” she said.
According to Sami, the 29 survivors of the first wreck said they capsized after wooden planks at the bottom of the rubber dinghy broke apart several hours after departing Libya around 3 a.m. Wednesday. Pregnant women and at least six children were on board, survivors told the UNHCR, but no children were saved in the rescue, which took place about 25 miles off Libya’s coast.
The survivors said more than 140 people were aboard the boat.
Two survivors of a second shipwreck were rescued in a separate operation, Sami said. They said at least 120 had been on board their boat, which broke apart off the Libyan coast around 5 a.m. Wednesday.
Most of the migrants appear to have come from sub-Saharan Africa, Sami said.
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