With Libyan Coast Shipwreck, 2021 might be Deadliest for Migrants

Akanimo Sampson

Akanimo Sampson

2021 is likely to turn out as the deadliest for the United Nations migration agency with the latest shipwreck off the Libyan coast claiming the lives of 130 migrants, despite SOS calls for help.

In the deadliest shipwreck recorded last year, 140 people drowned after a vessel carrying around 200 migrants sank off the Senegalese coast.

The October 2020 tragedy followed four shipwrecks recorded in the Central Mediterranean and another in the English Channel, prompting the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to call for “unity” between governments, partners and the international community to “dismantle trafficking and smuggling networks that take advantage of desperate youth”.

IOM Senegal’s Chief of Mission, Bakary Doumbia, said “it is also important that we advocate for enhanced legal channels to undermine the traffickers’ business model and prevent loss of life.”

Local eyewitnesses told the agency that the vessel set sail for Spain’s Canary Islands from the coastal town of Mbour in western Senegal. A few hours into the journey, the boat caught fire and capsized off the northwest coast of Senegal, near Saint-Louis.

The government of Senegal and IOM arranged a mission to Saint-Louis to assess needs and provide immediate psychosocial assistance to survivors.

According to news reports, those traveling by sea from Senegal were refused European visas, so risk a perilous voyage with the hopes of earning enough money to support their families back home.
IOM said that the number of departures from West Africa to Spain’s Canary Islands has significantly increased.

The UN agency has been monitoring coastal departures since early September and said that during that month alone, 14 boats carrying 663 migrants left Senegal for the Canary Islands – 26 per cent of which reported having run into trouble of been shipwrecked.

IOM estimated that there have been roughly 11,000 arrivals to the Canary Islands last year compared to 2,557 during the same period in 2019. And although a significant jump, it is still far below the 2006 peak when more than 32,000 people arrived seeking entry.

The deadly shipwreck brought the known number of deaths along this route in 2020 to at least 414, according to IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, which recorded 210 fatalities there in all of 2019.

In the mean time, the Libyan coast tragedy was confirmed late on Thursday by the volunteer rescue vessel Ocean Viking, which found dozens of bodies floating in the water northeast of Tripoli.

It had been in distress since Wednesday morning, the NGO said in a statement.

IOM spokesperson, Safa Msehli, told journalists in Geneva that the victims had been on board a rubber dinghy for two days before it sank in the central Mediterranean.

“For two days, the NGO alarm phone, which is responsible for sending distress calls to the relevant maritime rescue centres in the region, has been calling on states to uphold their responsibilities towards these people and send rescue vessels. Unfortunately, that has not happened.”

More than 500 people have drowned on the so-called Central Mediterranean sea route this year according to IOM – almost three times as many the same period last year.

Others in peril 

Over the past few days, there have been reports of at least two other boats carrying migrants in the central Mediterranean, Ms. Msehli noted.

One boat was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and 103 or more people were returned to Libya “and detained”, while a mother and child were found dead on board.

The third boat, which is believed to be carrying 40 people – has been at sea for three days and is still missing, the IOM spokesperson continued.

“What we fear is that the worst has happened, given the status and the state of these boats, given the length and duration that people are spending in what remains the most dangerous sea crossing in the world”.

According to IOM data, more than 16,700 people have crossed the Mediterranean route since the start of the year and some 750 have died, taking into account Thursday’s shipwreck.

In a joint message released late on Friday, IOM and UN refugee agency, UNHCR, called for “urgent action” in the Central Mediterranean to avert further major loss of life, noting that if the death toll is confirmed from earlier in the day, it will be the largest loss of life recorded in the area since the beginning of the year.

The agencies “reiterate their call on the international community to take urgent steps to end avoidable loss of lives at sea”, said the press release.

“This includes the reactivation of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, enhanced coordination with all rescue actors, ending returns to unsafe ports, and establishing a safe and predictable disembarkation mechanism.”


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