At least 130 migrants are feared dead after they attempted the sea route from Libya to Europe, in what United Nations officials believe is the single largest shipwreck in the central Mediterranean Sea this year.
The deadly incident means 500 migrants and refugees have drowned in total this year which is three times the total death toll of the same period last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
SOS Mediterranee, a European maritime and humanitarian organisation, said late Thursday they had found the shipwreck of a rubber boat north east of the Libyan capital Tripoli. The crew of the charity’s rescue ship said the boat had been reported in distress with around 130 people onboard on Wednesday morning.
Racing against time the Berlin-based NGO said they had rushed to locate the vessel but were ten hours away from the position when the call came in. They had also received alerts of two other boats in distress that they were trying to assist at the same time.
Battling six-metre waves, they got to the location but found no survivors and could only see at least ten bodies in the vicinity of the wreck.
Three merchant vessels assisted the charity in its rescue efforts.
“We are heartbroken,” the organisation said, adding that the fate of a further 40 people aboard a second vessel they were trying to help, remains unknown.
“States abandon their responsibility to coordinate search and rescue operations, leaving private actors and civil society to fill the deadly void they leave behind.
“We can see the result of this deliberate inaction in the sea around our ship.”
Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for the IOM told The Independent this shipwreck would be the largest loss of life in the central Mediterranean this year.
“[It makes] the total death toll around 500 lives compared to 150 lives lost in the same period of last year,” Ms Msehli said.
“I am truly horrified and baffled at the lack of any concrete action to address the lack of state led search and rescue capacity.
“We have called for years on the EU and international community for a shift in approach including redeploying state search and rescue assets.”
War-torn Libya is a popular but perilous transit route for migrants and refugees trying to get to Europe. Inside the country many are subjected to torture, kidnapping for ransom, extortion and detention in squalid jails by gangs, smugglers and militias.
At sea they risk their lives taking rickety boats and dinghies across waters to countries like Italy.
For years the waters off Libya were patrolled by state-led search and rescue operations but they were stopped, leaving just a handful of NGO boats, assisted by merchant ships, to patrol and sometimes the Italian coast guard, where possible. According to the IOM there is a total absence of dedicated EU state vessels to save lives.
The UN has repeatedly called for the state-led search and rescue efforts to be reactivated and for a halt to returning migrants to "unsafe ports".
The IOM said in a report at the end of March that last year more than 2,200 people perished at sea.
Ms Msehli added that the charities were the only bulwark against a catastrophic death toll.
“Without their efforts, which have been hindered in the past many times, loss of life would be much higher.”