At least 45 migrants drown in shipwreck off Libyan coast

The sinking of the vessel is the worst shipwreck in the Mediterranean in 2020

ATTENTION EDITORS - SENSITIVE MATERIAL. THIS IMAGE MAY OFFEND OR DISTURB  Rescue workers recover the dead bodies of migrants on a beach in the coastal suburb of Tajoura, east of Tripoli, Libya August 3, 2020. Picture taken August 3, 2020. REUTERS/Mahmoud Ali Mohamed  NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
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At least 45 people have drowned off the coast of Libya in the worst shipwreck in the central Mediterranean of 2020.

The United Nation’s refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) confirmed the deaths of the migrants and refugees, most of whom had come to Libya from sub-Saharan Africa.

"Some 37 survivors, mainly from Senegal, Mali, Chad and Ghana, were rescued by local fishermen and later detained upon disembarkation," the statement said.

"They reported to IOM staff that 45 others, including five children, lost their lives when the vessel’s engine exploded off the coast of Zuwarah," it said, referring to a town in western Libya that has become a hub for migrant trafficking.

In light of the disaster the UN has called for an increase in the capacity for search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Migrants are seen after being rescued by Libyan coast guard in Tripoli, Libya July 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Migrants rescued by the Libyan coastguard come ashore in Tripoli on July 26, 2019. Reuters

At least 302 people have been killed on the central Mediterranean route since the start of 2020.

The number of people fleeing Libya has increased in the summer months. Thousands have been returned to the war-torn country despite escalating violence there.

The burden of search and rescue has shifted from Europe, the hoped-for destination of the migrants, to the Libyan coast guard. The UN has said 7,000 people have returned to the North African country this year despite assertions from the IOM, UNHCR and international rescue NGOs that Libya cannot be designated a safe port for migrants to disembark.

The country has been plunged into instability over the past nine years since the removal of Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled the country for 40 years, and the start of an internecine civil war in 2014.

The EU’s mission to rescue migrants in the central Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, was shelved in March.

Its replacement mission, Operation Irini, has been handed the task of enforcing the long-flouted UN arms embargo on Libya but has no meaningful emphasis on migrant rescue.

International NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontiers, Sea-Watch and SOS Mediterranee, which operate rescue vessels in the central Mediterranean, have reported ongoing hostility from European governments towards their work.

Their rescue ships are regularly detained in port for prolonged periods by what they have said are nuisance inspections.

At the same time, safeguards in place following the outbreak of the coronavirus have also hampered the turnaround time for the rescue ships.

Europe's response to the migrant crisis has been hobbled by infighting. At the other end of the continent's migration routes, Britain, which left the EU formally this year, has found itself in the beginnings of a standoff with France over how to address illegal immigration across the English Channel.

A 16-year-old Sudanese boy was found dead on a French beach on Wednesday after he tried to reach the UK in a dinghy, which was punctured with a shovel he was using as an oar.

French politician Pierre-Henri Dumont has blamed the British government for the death over its policy of refusing to allow UK asylum claims to be made outside the country. “How many more tragedies does it need for the British to find an ounce of humanity?” he asked.