Migrants leaving Libya appear to be running dangers nearly as great as staying in the country at war. Even those who do reach the Italian island of Lampedusa can drown if their vessel hits rocks.
With reports of hundreds of drownings, the International Organisation for Migration said the reality of the crisis in Libya is that “we will probably never know how many” lives are being lost at sea. Most of those trying to flee are from sub-Saharan Africa.
But future deaths could be prevented, the UN insists. It is appealing to European states to improve their systems for rescue at sea, underscoring that the Italian and Maltese coast guards cannot cope on their own.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper has been investigating the dehydration and starvation deaths of almost everyone on board a boat that it said encountered European military units without being rescued.
NATO is denying that international maritime law was ignored, saying ships under its command always respond to distress calls. The UN refugee organisation says all ships at sea are under this obligation.
UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes said: “We’re asking that commercial and military vessels remain really vigilant at this time, on the understanding that there are many boats packed full of migrants and refugees that are escaping the violence in Libya, and in many cases these boats are in an unseaworthy condition.”
Humanitarian organisations say more than 10,000 migrants have arrived on EU countries’ island territory since unrest erupted in northern Africa earlier this year. Some migrants say they have also been stripped of their possessions and savings and then forced on to boats by Libyan soldiers.
UN appeals for more Mediterranean Sea rescue vigilance