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Boat transfer in Mediterranean turns deadly; 500 migrants feared dead, U.N. says

The smugglers wanted passengers on smaller boats to move to a larger vessel, one already filled with hundreds of migrants trying to make their way across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

But the larger boat took on water during the transfer, which was attempted between Libya and Italy. Ultimately, about 500 people may have perished in the shipwreck last week, the United Nations refugee agency and others said Wednesday, based on the accounts of 41 survivors.

Some survivors told staffers with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that they were among 100 to 200 people who departed from Tobruk, Libya, on a 100-foot-long boat before smugglers attempted to transfer them to a larger vessel.

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“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,” the U.N. refugee agency said in a statement. “At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank.”

It is believed that the survivors drifted at sea for as long as three days before being spotted and rescued by a Philippine-flagged cargo vessel on Saturday. Officials said the 41 survivors consisted of 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, 6 Egyptians and a Sudanese.

The shipwreck was announced by Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni on Monday, after a private rescue ship run by the humanitarian group SOS Mediterranee found six dead bodies near Italian shores one day earlier.

The U.N. refugee agency on Wednesday called “for increased regular pathways for the admission of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe, including resettlement and humanitarian admission programs, family reunification, private sponsorship and student and work visas for refugees.” These will all serve to reduce the demand for people smuggling and dangerous irregular sea journeys, the statement said.

The refugee agency called what happened “one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants in the last 12 months.”

Reports of the possible deaths circulated among families and on social media, but they had not been confirmed by coast guard authorities in Italy, Greece, Libya or Egypt, the Associated Press reported. More than 1 million migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean last year, mostly war refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria fleeing to Greece, and the European Union, via Turkey.

Hassan is a special correspondent.

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