Migrants risking their lives in this over-crowded dingy in their bid to reach Europe. - AFP

Migrants risking their lives in this over-crowded dingy in their bid to reach Europe. – AFP

TRIPOLI/GENEVA.- A boat packed with mainly African migrants bound for Italy sank off the Libyan coast on Thursday, and officials said up to 200 might have died. A security official in the western town of Zuwara, from where the overcrowded boat had set off, said there had around 400 people on board. Many appeared to have been trapped in the hold when it capsized.

By late in the evening, the Libyan coast guard rescued around 201, of which 147 were brought to a detention facility for illegal migrants in Sabratha, west of Tripoli, the official said, asking not to be named. Another local official and a journalist based in Zuwara confirmed the sinking but also had no information on casualties.

The migrants on board had been from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco and Bangladesh, the security official said. The Italian coast guard, which has been coordinating rescue operations with the European Union off the Libyan coast, could not immediately confirm a sinking.

Libya’s coast guard has very limited capabilities, relying on small inflatables, tug boats and fishing vessels. Zuwara, Libya’s most western town located near the Tunisian border, is a major launchpad for smugglers shipping migrants to Italy. Libya has turned into a transit route for migrants fleeing conflict and poverty to make it to Europe. Cross-border smuggler networks exploit the country’s lawlessness and chaos to bring Syrians into Libya via Egypt or nationals of sub-Saharan countries via Niger, Sudan and Chad.

More than 2,300 people have died this year in attempts to reach Europe by boat, compared with 3,279 during the whole of last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Hundreds of residents of one of Libya’s most notorious people-smuggling hubs have staged an anti-smuggling protest after the discovery of up to 200 corpses in waters close to the town.

Mohsen Ftis, a representative of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said many Zuwara residents had delivered a powerful reminder of the human cost of the town’s principal source of income. “Most of the town came out and demonstrated,” said Ftis.

“They said it wasn’t human. They were emotional. They were very angry and they don’t like it.” The incident has highlighted how the death toll in the Mediterranean may be far higher than is believed. Statistics compiled by the UN rely mostly on reports from European rescue missions, but bodies regularly turn up on the shores of both Libya and the eastern Tunisian coast. Owing to the breakdown of the Libyan state and reticence from the Tunisian government they sometimes go undocumented.

But Libya is still experiencing record numbers of departures. An unprecedented wave of people from African countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and Nigeria are still using it as a means of reaching Europe – and thousands are still dying in the attempt. Meanwhile, a truck that was discovered abandoned on an Austrian motorway on Thursday contained 71 bodies including children, police sources said yesterday, adding that three people had been arrested in connection with the deaths.

The refugees likely suffocated in the refrigerated truck abandoned on Austria’s main highway, said Hans Peter Doskozil, chief of police in eastern Burgenland province. The truck, which had arrived in Austria from Hungary, was found by an Austrian motorway patrol near the border just before lunchtime on Thursday, with fluids from the decomposing bodies seeping from its back door.

“Work continued throughout the night, but I expect all the bodies have been removed now,” said Helmut Marban, a police spokesman for the Burgenland province. “Forensic investigators are still at the lorry and trying to establish all the facts.”

Even before the latest incidents, the International Organisation for Migration estimated 2,373 people had died so far this year while trying to reach Europe by sea and 3 573 in the past 12 months. “There are thousands and thousands of dead lying in the Mediterranean whose bodies will never be found, and no one is paying attention,” said Palermo’s Mayor Leoluca Orlando.

Hundreds of thousands, many fleeing war in countries such as Syria and Libya, have made it into the European Union. Germany alone expects 800,000 asylum seekers this year; Hungary is building a barbed-wire fence along its border with Serbia. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she hoped the tragedy would push member states to “take decisions and responsibility”.

European Commissioner Johannes Hahn reiterated that Brussels would propose a fresh look at the situation in the next few weeks with a view to sharing responsibility between EU countries. “We will have another go at quotas. I hope that in the light of the most recent developments now there is a readiness among all the 28 (member states) to agree on this,” he said.

Greece’s coast guard says it has rescued 665 migrants at sea in 20 search-and-rescue operations off the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Agathonissi, Kos and Megisti in the 24 hours from Thursday morning to yesterday morning. The figures do not include the hundreds more who reach the islands’ shores from the nearby Turkish coast each day, most of them using inflatable dinghies. The vast majority of those arriving in Greece are Syrian and Afghan refugees.

The migrants pouring into Greece are hoping to travel north via the Balkans and apply for asylum in wealthy European Union nations like Germany, Austria or Sweden. Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary have been overwhelmed this summer by the tens of thousands of migrants traveling through their countries.- The Guardian/France24/Reuters.