TRIPOLI: Dozens of migrants are thought to have died after their boat sunk off the coast of Libya, the United Nations said on Wednesday, the latest tragedy on the world’s deadliest migration route.

The boat carrying 80 people had departed from Qasr al-Akhyar, east of the capital Tripoli, and was heading to Europe when it ran into trouble on Tuesday, the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.

At least 73 of those aboard were “missing and presumed dead”, it said, adding that Libyan rescuers had retrieved 11 bodies.

“Seven survivors who made it back to Libyan shores in extremely dire conditions are currently in the hospital,” the agency added.

War-torn Libya is a key launchpad for migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, seeking to reach Italian shores just 290 kilometres to the north — but the route is the world’s deadliest migratory sea crossing.

The branch of the Libyan Red Crescent that covers Qasr al-Akhyar confirmed on Facebook that its workers had recovered 11 dead migrants, with photos appearing to show their bodies. Libyan authorities made no announcement of any shipwreck.

The latest tragedy brings the numbers of deaths on the central Mediterranean route to 130 this year, the IOM said, calling the situation “intolerable”.

“Concrete action by states is needed to increase search and rescue capacity, establish clear and safe disembarkation mechanisms as well as safe and regular pathways to migration to reduce dangerous journeys,” the IOM said.

According to the agency’s Missing Migrants Project, more than 1,450 migrant deaths were recorded on the route in 2022, a fraction of the more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014.

On Tuesday, rescue boat the Ocean Viking saved 84 migrants on an “overcrowded” inflatable craft off Libya, charity SOS Mediterranee said, adding that 58 of them were unaccompanied minors.

More than a decade of violence in Libya since the fall and killing of dictator Moamer Qadhafi in 2011 helped turn the country into a fertile ground for people-trafficking gangs who have been accused of abuses ranging from extortion to slavery. But rights groups have also repeatedly accused European authorities of complicity in the tragedies.

In early January, 20 charities including Doctors Without Borders (MSF) slammed Italy’s new rules on rescuing migrants at sea, saying they violated international law and would result in more deaths.

Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s new government has vowed to stop charity vessels from performing what it considers to be a “ferry” service from North Africa. But the charities said the new rules would mean a “decreased presence of rescue ships (that) will inevitably result in more people tragically drowning at sea”.

Captains who break the rules face fines of up to about $53,400 and can have their vessels confiscated.

Meloni’s government took office in October, vowing to stop migrant landings in Italy, which reached more than 105,000 in 2022, according to the interior ministry.

Rome also wants other European Union countries to take in more of the migrants reaching its shores.

In late January, Meloni visited Tripoli and signed a deal to “do more to stem the flow of illegal immigration” to Italy from the Libyan coast, something she said “concerns not only Italy but also Europe”.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2023

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