More than 1,000 migrants have died crossing Mediterranean in 2018: UN
Survivors have reported that about 220 migrants drowned off the coast of Libya in the past few days while trying to reach Europe, putting the death toll this year on that route to more than 1,000, the United Nations said on Thursday.
Italy's new hardline policy against accepting refugees and migrants from north Africa under its right-wing populist government has failed to stem the flow of people taking to flimsy vessels to reach Europe via the sea from Libya.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement it was "shocked" by the deaths and called for urgent action to reduce the continuing loss of life.
"UNHCR is dismayed by the ever-growing number of refugees and migrants losing their lives at sea and is calling for urgent international action to strengthen rescue at sea efforts by all relevant and capable actors, including NGOs and commercial vessels, throughout the Mediterranean.
"At the same time, access to protection in countries of first asylum should be ensured, as well as alternative pathways for refugees in Libya trying to cross the sea in search of protection and safety. All these steps are crucial to ensure that no more lives are lost at sea," it said.
The Libyan coastguard, meanwhile, picked up 762 migrants trying to reach Italy in rubber boats during the past two days alone, its spokesman said.
The North African country is a key departure point for migrants fleeing wars and poverty who are trying to reach Europe, though crossings have dropped sharply since last July amid a more active coastguard presence with support from the European Union.
Only five people survived the capsizing of a boat carrying 100 people on Tuesday, while the same day a rubber craft with 130 passengers sank, leading to 70 people drowning, according to UNHCR.
On Wednesday, a boat of migrants who were rescued reported that more than 50 people travelling with them had perished at sea, it said.
Libya's coastguard picked up 680 African migrants on Thursday alone from at least five inflatable boats near its western coast, a spokesman said.
"The coastguard rescued 301 migrants early this morning, including three women and 46 children from 12 different sub-Saharan countries," its spokesman Ayoub Qassem told Reuters.
"The illegal migrants were on board two big rubber boats," Qassem said. "The engines of the two boats stopped working in the middle of sea."
Qassem added that 237 migrants, including two children and three women, had been rescued from two rubber boats off Qarabulli.
On Wednesday, one body was recovered and a group of 82 migrants were rescued off Tripoli's eastern Tajoura suburb, he said.
Most migrants try to head across the Mediterranean towards Italy, hoping they will be picked up by ships run by aid groups and taken there, although many drown before they are rescued.
Earlier this month, however, Italy's anti-immigrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, vowed to no longer let charity ships offload rescued migrants in Italy, leaving one ship stranded at sea for several days with more than 600 migrants until Spain offered them safe harbour.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will try on Sunday to persuade other EU leaders to agree upon a common policy on migrants, although her chances of winning support from all 28 member states are deemed slim.