Up to 200 bodies have been discovered off the coast of one of Libya’s main people-smuggling hubs, in the latest tragedy of the European migration crisis.
The bodies were found by a Libyan coastguard vessel around a kilometre from Zuwara, a port in western Libya that is a major departure point for migrants hoping to reach Italy.
A security official in the western town of Zuwara, from where the overcrowded boat had set off, said there had been around 400 people on board. Many appeared to have been trapped in the hold when it capsized.
According to a representative of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who was helping to coordinate the humanitarian response, around 40 bodies were found inside a half-sunk fishing boat as it was brought towards the shore by the high tide. Up to 160 others were discovered floating nearby, while around 201 survivors were rescued. Some of the bodies were taken to shore, but many were left to float in the water overnight, as coastguards did not have enough light to work by.
Those on board had been from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco and Bangladesh, the security official said.
If confirmed, the incident would bring the total number of deaths in the Mediterranean this year to over 2,500 – a figure higher even than last year’s record-breaking toll.
On Wednesday, 52 bodies were found below deck on a wooden boat with over 450 people on board rescued by the Swedish coast guard off the coast of Libya. Simon Bryant, the Canadian medic who found them, there were petrol fumes in the hold. “I just quickly checked for signs of life and moved on. There was water in the boat, some people were half in the water, face down …” he told AFP.
Libya is no longer the primary springboard for people attempting to reach Europe by irregular means, after the Turkey-Greece crossing emerged as a more popular route in 2015, particularly for Syrians. The war in Libya, stricter visa regulations for Syrians in Egypt and Algeria and the comparative ease of crossing from Turkey are three factors that have made Libya a less desirable and less accessible departure point.
But the scale of the migration crisis is highlighted by the way Italy is nevertheless still experiencing record numbers of arrivals, even as Syrians increasingly opt for Greece. A wave of people from African countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and Nigeria are still using Libya as a means of reaching Europe – and thousands are still dying in the attempt.
In another incident on Thursday, up to 50 migrants were discovered dead in a lorry in Austria.