By Ahmed Elumami and Stephanie Nebehay
TRIPOLI/GENEVA (Reuters) – Survivors have reported that about 220 migrants drowned off the coast of Libya in the last few days while trying to reach Europe, putting the death toll this year on that route to more than 1,000, the United Nations said on Thursday.
The Libyan coast guard, meanwhile, picked up 762 migrants trying to reach Italy in rubber boats during the past two days alone, its spokesman said.
The North African country is a key departure point for migrants fleeing wars and poverty who are trying to reach Europe, though crossings have dropped sharply since last July due to a more active coast guard presence with support from the European Union.
Only five people survived the capsizing of a boat carrying 100 people on Tuesday, while the same day a rubber craft with 130 passengers sank, leading to 70 people drowning, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
On Wednesday, a boat of migrants who were rescued reported that more than 50 people traveling with them had perished at sea, it said.
“UNHCR is dismayed at the ever-growing numbers of refugees and migrants losing their lives at sea and is calling for urgent international action to strengthen rescue at sea efforts by all relevant and capable actors, including NGOs and commercial vessels, throughout the Mediterranean,” the agency said.
Libya’s coast guard picked up 680 African migrants on Thursday alone from at least five inflatable boats near its western coast, a spokesman said.
“The coast guard rescued 301 migrants early this morning, including three women and 46 children from 12 different sub-Saharan countries,” its spokesman Ayoub Qassem told Reuters.
“The illegal migrants were on board two big rubber boats,” Qassem said. “The engines of the two boats stopped working in the middle of sea.”
He later said the coast guard had also recovered three bodies and rescued 142 illegal migrants some 25 miles off Tripoli’s eastern Qarabulli town after their boat foundered.
Qassem added that 237 illegal migrants including two children and three women had been rescued from two rubber boats off Qarabulli.
On Wednesday, one body was recovered and a group of 82 migrants were rescued off Tripoli’s eastern Tajoura suburb, he said.
Most migrants try to head across the Mediterranean toward Italy, hoping they will be picked up by ships run by aid groups and taken there, although many drown before they are rescued.
Earlier this month, however, Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister Matteo Salvini vowed to no longer let charity ships offload rescued migrants in Italy, leaving one ship stranded at sea for several days with more than 600 migrants until Spain offered them safe harbor.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will try on Sunday to persuade other EU leaders to agree upon a common policy on migrants although her chances of winning support from all 28 member states are deemed slim.
(Editing by Ulf Laessing, Alison Williams and G Crosse)