Cairo: A flimsy rubber boat collapsed and sank in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya’s coast, leaving at least 30 people including women and children missing and feared dead, an international charity said Wednesday. It marked the latest tragedy at sea involving refugees seeking a better life in Europe.
The vessel sank in the deadly central Mediterranean Sea route, said Doctors Without Borders, also known by its abbreviation MSF for the French name of the group.
A rescue ship operated by MSF reached the boat, and managed to rescue dozens of other refugees including some women, the charity said. A pregnant woman died on board the rescue ship, Geo Barents.
The missing refugees include five women and eight children, MSF said.
“We have seen so many people drowning — men, women and children — and we will never forget the day we had yesterday. We tried to save them but we couldn’t save them all,” a 17-year-old boy from Cameroon said in a testimony posted by MSF on Twitter.
Libya has in recent years emerged as the dominant transit point for refugees fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a Nato-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The Ambulance and Emergency Authority in the southeastern city of Kufra said the refugees were on their way from Chad to Libya when their vehicle broke down, around 310 kilometers (192 miles) south of the city.
It was not immediately clear when the vehicle broke down.The agency posted footage online showing rescue workers putting the dead refugees in black body bags, before moving them to waiting vehicles.
Human traffickers in recent years have benefited from the chaos in Libya, smuggling in refugees across the country’s lengthy borders with six nations. The refugees are then packed into ill-equipped rubber boats and set off on risky sea voyages.
Among the rescued refugees from Monday’s boat sinking was a woman who lost her child in the sinking and another one who said she lost two children, the charity said. Three people on board needed emergency care, including a 4-month-old baby and they were evacuated to Malta. The infant was evacuated along with his mother, MSF said.
“The survivors are exhausted” many have ingested large amounts of seawater and multiple people suffered from hypothermia after spending many hours in the water,’’ said Stephanie Hofstetter, MSF medical team leader on board.
The charity has called for Italian and Maltese authorities to determine a port of safety to allow the disembarkation of survivors.
The loss of life is the latest tragedy at sea involving refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean from the North African nation in a desperate attempt to reach European shores.
“This is an example of what happens weekly, if not daily in the Central Mediterranean,’’ said Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration. “The lack of active monitoring and search and rescue by State actors makes it extremely difficult for us to have the full picture.’’
In recent years, the European Union has cooperated with Libyan authorities to prevent the crossings in policies criticized by rights groups.
Rights groups and UN agencies have for years documented systematic abuse of refugees in Libya including forced labor, beatings, rapes and torture. The abuse often accompanies efforts to extort money from families before refugees are allowed to leave Libya on traffickers’ boats.