A rubber dinghy packed with 91 migrants who set out from Libya for Europe has gone missing in the Mediterranean, the UN refugee agency said on Thursday.
The inflatable boat carrying mostly African migrants left Al Qarbouli, 50 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli, on February 8, said Osman Haroun, whose cousin was on board.
Mr Haroun has not heard from Mohamed Idris, 27, or his 10 other friends also on the boat since its departure.
“It’s the first time I’ve heard of this happening,” he told AP from the western coastal district of Zawiya, where he has lived with his family since fleeing the Darfur region of Sudan in 2016.
“You usually hear from those who set out within a few hours. No one has even seen the boat’s remains.”
There has been broad criticism of the EU's lack of rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Member countries agreed this week to end an operation against migrant smuggling involving only surveillance aircraft.
They will now send military ships to concentrate on upholding a widely flouted UN arms embargo, which is considered key to ending Libya’s war.
Alarm Phone, a crisis hotline for migrants in need of rescue at sea, drew attention to what it called “an invisible shipwreck” on Thursday.
It urged Libyan, Maltese and Italian authorities to share information about the day’s rescue missions.
The charity said someone aboard the black rubber boat carrying migrants from Sudan, Niger, Iran and Mali called the hotline in distress at 3.30am on February 9.
The passengers managed to share their GPS co-ordinates minutes later, which put them in international water north of Libya.
Alarm Phone passed the emergency request to Italian and Maltese authorities, and the Libyan coastguard.
The EU-trained coastguard, which has been criticised by human rights groups, patrols Mediterranean water and intercepts migrants to keep them from reaching Europe.
The Libyan coastguard took five hours to respond to Alarm Phone’s urgent request and claimed it had sent two ships to search for the missing vessel.
Alarm Phone lost contact with the boat more than two hours later when it heard people panicking, saying the engine had failed.
Migrants were slipping into the sea, they told the hotline, as water flooded the shrinking dinghy.
“For sure something bad has happened,” Mr Haroun said.
The International Organisation for Migration cross-checked search and rescue records from Italy, Malta, Libya and the non-government Aita Mari rescue ship, but could not match the missing boat with any recent rescue or interception.
Frontex, the EU border agency, said it sent a plane to search for the boat.
Authorities have also yet to respond to requests put forward by Alarm Phone on Monday. It and the migration watchdog say they fear the worst.
“Tragically, the last hypothesis is that this could be another invisible shipwreck,” said Marta Sanchez of the International Organisation for Migration, who examined the records.
Ms Sanchez said the IOM would wait a few days before officially recording the 91 people as missing, to see if any remains turn up.
The organisation's tally of “ghost boats” lost in the Mediterranean Sea has been rising.
Last year, the agency documented seven missing vessels carrying 417 people, a fourfold increase from the year before.
It obtains its data from non-government organisations and testimony from families, and cross-references the reports against records of attempted crossings, rescues and interceptions.
Mr Haroun, 29, said he and his cousin had repeatedly tried and failed to cross the Mediterranean throughout their years in Libya.
As country descended into chaos after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed dictator Muammar Qaddafi, it became a haven for smugglers ferrying African migrants to European shores.
The voyage is perilous and often harrowing. As of last October, about 19,000 migrants have drowned or disappeared on the sea route since 2014, IOM said.
Each time Mr Haroun and Mr Idris set out, the coastguard forcibly returned them to Libya.
In 2020, 1,700 people have been taken back, the organisation said, often landing in squalid, militia-run detention centres to face torture and abuse.
Mr Haroun paid 1,500 Libyan dinars (Dh3,900) upfront to smugglers, and bid his cousin farewell.
He imagined he would join his four relatives who have crossed the sea and started new lives in England and France.