Nearly 700 migrants may have died in two recent shipwrecks off the coast of Libya, the International Organization for Migration said Monday.
Quoting two survivors, the IOM’s Italy office said human traffickers deliberately sank a boat with about 500 Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and Sudanese migrants, after they refused an at-sea transfer onto a more rickety vessel.
“If this story – which is being investigated by police – is confirmed, it would be the biggest shipwreck of recent years. It would be particulary serious as it would not be an incident, but an episode of mass killing,” the IOM said in a statement.
The IOM said the migrants left the Egyptian port of Damietta on Sept. 6, and that the two Palestinian survivors it interviewed were rescued by a passing cargo ship after spending 36 hours at sea, and taken to Pozzallo, Sicily, on Saturday.
The IOM said it was also checking reports that some 200 people are missing following on a wreck on Sunday off Libya.
“The death toll in the Mediterranean in these hours is extremely grave … 700 people may have died at sea over the past few days,” the statement said.
Al-Wasat news site, quoting a naval commander, reported that 160 migrants were feared to have drowned in the sinking on Sunday.
Some 36 people had been rescued, including a pregnant woman, and had been taken to hospital, navy spokesman Captain Ayyub Qasim told Al-Wasat.
Naval forces had headed to a location 10 miles out from the western coastal town of Tajoura after fishermen reported seeing large numbers of bodies in the water, Qasim said.
Migrant flows across the Mediterranean have sharply increased this year. The IOM has calculated that about 108,000 prospective asylum-seekers had arrived by sea in Italy up to late August, compared to less than 43,000 in 2013.
The Italian navy, which is coordinating the maritime search-and-rescue Mare Nostrum mission, said 2,879 people were rescued at sea over the weekend. It said that one of its patrols also picked up a corpse.
In August the UN refugees agency (UNHCR) calculated that nearly 1,900 migrants had drowned since January in attempts to reach Europe by sea.
“These tragic events show, on one side, how it is necessary for the high-sea rescue operations to continue (…), and on other, what level of aberration has been reached by human traffickers, as they are placing migrants on ever more rickety and overcrowded boats, directly or indirectly causing the death of thousands,” IOM said.