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170 migrants missing in Mediterranean: UNHCR

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A dinghy at the port of Malaga, southern Spain, January 15, 2019.
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An estimated 170 migrants including children have either died or gone missing in two seperate shipwrecks on the Mediterranean Sea, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on Saturday.

Some 117 migrants including at least two children who attempted to cross the Mediterranean on Thursday are unaccounted for, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Saturday, a day after three people from the same dinghy were rescued.

"According to survivors migrants on board were 120. There are therefore 117 missing people including 10 women and 2 children (one was just 2 months old)," IOM spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo said on Twitter.

"Many of the migrants on board were western African, but survivors say that there were also about 40 Sudanese on board," he added.

According to a statement from the Italian navy, the sinking dinghy was first spotted on Friday afternoon by a patrol aircraft, which threw two life-rafts into the water.

A helicopter was then dispatched and recovered three people — one from the water and two from a safety raft. Suffering from severe hypothermia, they were taken to a hospital in Lampedusa, a small Italian island halfway between Tunisia and Malta.

They told authorities that they had left Garabulli, east of Libya's Tripoli, on Thursday night but that the boat started sinking after 10 or 11 hours at sea.

UNHCR also revealed on Saturday that some 53 people have died on the Alboran Sea, in western Mediterranean.

One survivor, who spent 24 hours stranded at sea, was rescued by a fishing boat and taken to a hospital in Morocco.

According to the statement, Moroccan and Spanish rescue vessels have been searching for the boat and survivors "for several days to no avail."

"The tragedy of the Mediterranean cannot be allowed to continue," Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in the statement.

"We cannot turn a blind eye to the high numbers of people dying on Europe’s doorstep. No effort should be spared, or prevented, from saving lives in distress at sea," he added.

UNHCR was unable however to independently verify the death tolls for both shipwrecks.

Some 4,216 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea through the first 16 days of 2019, double the amount that did so over the same period last year, according to the IOM.

Spain remains the preferred gateway to the Old Continent with 80% of all Mediterranean arrivals registered there. So far, the country has received 3,369 irregular migrants. Last year, arrivals over the same period tallied 1,609.

However, the number of deaths over the first two weeks of the year has been halved to 83 from 199 last year.