A possible 500 refugees feared drowned crossing the Mediterranean
Indian artist Sudarsan Pattnaik works on a sand sculpture depicting drowned Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi. (AFP/File)
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Up to 500 refugees are feared drowned after their ship sunk somewhere between Libya and Italy, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday.
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said the tragedy could be the worst to hit migrants attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the last year.
Based on interviews with survivors, the agency said a large ship capsized as smugglers transferred refugees from a smaller vessel. The 41 survivors were either still on the smaller boat or swam back to it. They were picked up by a merchant ship after drifting at sea for up to three days.
"If confirmed, as many as 500 people may have lost their lives when a large ship went down in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy," the UNHCR said in a statement.
It said the survivors consisted of 37 men, three women and a three-year-old child and were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. They were taken to Kalamata, Greece, on April 16.
The statement added: "The survivors told us that they had been part of a group of between 100 and 200 people who departed last week from a locality near Tobruk in Libya on a 30-metre-long boat.
"After sailing for several hours, the smugglers in charge of the boat attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions. At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank."
According to the International Organization for Migration, nearly 179,000 refugees have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean so far this year while 737 are estimated dead or missing. More than 1 million arrived by sea last year.
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