Libya's coast guard has said that at least 19 people are missing and are presumed dead after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the east coast of Libya over the weekend. The vessel reportedly carried around two dozen mostly Egyptian migrants.
A group of 23 migrants hailing from Egypt and Syria set off from the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk early Saturday morning (March 12), according to news agency AP citing Libya's coast guard.
Around 6 am, three hours after they had left shore, the group sent a distress call, a spokesperson of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told InfoMigrants.
Six migrants were rescued and taken to hospital, AP reported. At the time of writing, five bodies was retrieved and search efforts were ongoing, Libyan authorities and the IOM said.
Tobruk is located some 1,000 kilometers east of the capital Tripoli near the Egyptian border and some 330 kilometers south of the Greek island of Crete.
The shipwreck is the latest tragedy at sea involving migrants trying to reach European shores from the northern African nation. Libya has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
Earlier this month, around 50 people died in a shipwreck off the city of Sabratha, west of Tripoli, where some of their bodies were washed up on a beach. At least 234 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, according to the IOM, the vast majority of them off the Libyan and Tunisian coasts in the Central Mediterranean.
From northern Africa to Europe
In recent years, according to AP, human traffickers have benefited from the chaos in Libya, smuggling in migrants across country's lengthy borders with six other northern African countries. The migrants are then packed into unseaworthy rubber boats and set off on dangerous sea voyages.
The main destination of migrants fleeing to European territory by boat from Libya and neighboring Tunisia is Italy. Arrivals to the EU member state have surged since revolts in Libya and Tunisia toppled their respective leaders in 2011, with a record 181,000 people arriving in Italy in 2016. Last year, more than 67,000 people arrived in Italy by sea, according to UNHCR data.
At present, the majority of migrants arriving in Italy from Libya and Tunisia hail from three countries: Bangladesh, Egypt and Tunisia. That's according to the latest figures published by UNHCR.
At the same time, many crossing attempts are thwarted: According to the IOM, Libya's coast guard intercepted and returned more than 32,000 migrants last year. Once back, they are typically subjected to systemic abuse and ill-treatment at government-run detention centers.
Rights groups have called the Central Mediterranean the world's deadliest migration route. According to estimates by the IOM's Missing Migrants Project, more than 1,500 people have drowned in the Central Mediterranean in 2021 while trying to reach European shores. The real number is likely a lot higher.
Read more: When helping hurts -- Libya's controversial coast guard, Europe’s go-to partner to stem migration