Up to 1,200 refugees missing at sea en route to Europe: UN

As many as 1,200 refugees from Libya have gone missing and are presumably dead on their way to Europe through the Mediterranean, the Geneva based United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Friday.

The death toll represents a miserable ratio of one in ten, if compared with the total number of more than 12,000 refugees who have managed to land in the closest shores of Europe, including Malta and the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told the press.

A boat carrying 72 refugees, among them women and children, were reportedly in distress at sea after leaving the Libyan city of Tripoli for Lampedusa. 63 out of the 72 people on board died agonizing deaths after their boat ran out of fuel and went into drift at sea for over two weeks while passing vessels and helicopters allegedly failed to stop and rescue the boat people.

The British newspaper The Guardian, after investigation, accused NATO vessels, in particular the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle of deliberately ignoring the distress signals from the troubled refugee boat.

NATO and the French naval authorities all denied the accusation.

Survivors of a boat that left Tripoli on March 25 describe the brutalizing ordeal they and their fellow passengers were forced to endure on this perilous journey.  The U.N. refugee agency says its staff interviewed three Oromo Ethiopian men on Thursday who said they were among only nine survivors from a boat carrying 72 people. 

The survivors of this ill-fated journey are now being cared for in the Shousha refugee camp in Tunisia where the interviews took place.

Fleming says one of the survivors told UNHCR staff their boat was so packed there was barely any room to stand. She says the boat, which was on its way to Europe, ran out of fuel, water and food.  The survivor says it drifted for more than two weeks before reaching a beach in Libya.

“The refugee we interviewed said that military vessels twice passed their boat, without stopping, and that a military helicopter dropped food and water onto the boat at some point during the journey," said the spokeswoman. "The first boat refused their request to board.  The second only took photos, he said.  The man was not able to identify, however, where these vessels came from and to provide us with further description.” 

The survivors told UNHCR staff when water ran out, people drank seawater and their own urine.  They ate toothpaste and one by one people started to die.  Among those who died were 20 women and two small children.

Fleming says the survivors paid smugglers $800 to make this fateful journey and the passengers were expected to operate the boat on their own.  She says this is becoming a trend.

“We have heard accounts that perhaps there was a captain for the first 100 meters or so and a smaller boat would then take the captain back to shore and provide the passengers with a compass and say Lampedusa is in that direction.  Best of luck,” said Fleming.

Fleming says the journey is so dangerous that one out of 10 people will perish.  So far, 12,000 people have arrived in Italy and Malta. Fleming says about 1,200 have gone missing and presumed dead.

She says this odyssey ended when the boat drifted to a beach near Zliten, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.  She says one woman died on the beach from exhaustion.  The remaining 10 men walked to Zliten where the Libyan police arrested them.  Subsequently another man died, leaving nine survivors.

Fleming says Ethiopian friends in Tripoli paid the prison $900 to release the men who made their way to Shousha refugee camp in Tunisia.

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