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Migrant shipwreck off Libyan coast leaves at least 43 dead, says UN

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Migrants are assisted by aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, after fleeing Libya on board a precarious wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea, Jan. 2, 2021.
Migrants are assisted by aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, after fleeing Libya on board a precarious wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea, Jan. 2, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Joan Mateu
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A boat carrying migrants bound for Europe capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, drowning at least 43 people, the UN agencies for migration and refugees said on Wednesday.

In a joint statement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR said the "tragic shipwreck" that took place a day earlier was the first maritime disaster in 2021 involving migrants seeking better lives in Europe.

In recent years, the EU has partnered with Libya’s coast guard and other local groups to stem such dangerous sea crossings. Rights groups, however, say those policies leave migrants at the mercy of armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers rife with abuses.

The IOM said coastal security forces in Libya’s western town of Zuwara rescued 10 migrants from the shipwreck Tuesday and brought them to shore. The survivors, who came mainly from Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia, indicated that the dead were all men from West African nations.

The migration agency said the boat left the town of Zawiya early Tuesday and capsized a few hours later after its engine stopped working amid rough seas.

More than 1,200 migrants perished in 2020 in the Mediterranean Sea, a large majority on the same central route, according to the IOM.

In the years since the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, war-torn Libya has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route.

The Libyan coast guard Wednesday intercepted at least 48 migrants, including 11 children, and returned them to shore, the IOM said.

The U.N. migration and refugee agencies called for an “urgent and measurable shift in the approach” to the situation in the Mediterranean, including an end to migrant returns to “unsafe ports."

"Arbitrary arrests and arbitrary detention in the direst of conditions continue (in Libya). Many are victimized and exploited by traffickers and smugglers, held for ransom, tortured, and abused,” they said in a statement Wednesday.

The IOM said in November that some 500 migrants have died trying to cross the central Mediterranean, but the actual number of people who lost their lives could be much higher, due to “the limited ability to monitor routes.”

A Euronews investigation in 2019 into the UNHCR's operation in Libya uncovered the extent of neglect in terms of care that can be found where migrants wait to be processed in detention camps.