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500 Migrants May Have Died in Sinking of Boat in Mediterranean, U.N. Says

Rome, April 21, 2016: The United Nations refugee agency said on Wednesday that 500 people may have died in the choppy waters of the Mediterranean last week, when a large boat packed with migrants from Africa and the Middle East capsized in an unknown location between Libya and Italy.

If confirmed, it would be the worst humanitarian calamity in Europe’s migrant crisis since more than 800 people died last April near Libyan shores as they tried to reach Italy.

The agency based its findings on interviews with 41 survivors of the shipwreck, although it was not able to verify the episode independently. The migrants — 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, six Egyptians and a Sudanese — were picked up by a merchant ship near Greece on April 16 after days of drifting at sea. They were transferred to a migrant camp in Kalamata, a city on the Greek mainland.

Their stories helped lift a cloud of confusion about the episode ever since rumors of the sinking emerged over the weekend. But they did not resolve the questions of where the ship went down or what the ultimate death toll may be. No national coast guards have reported finding the boat.

If accurate, however, the testimonies suggest that human smugglers are operating as aggressively as ever on the Mediterranean route even as a recent European Union deal with Turkey has stemmed the flow across the Aegean Sea.

And while there is no indication that Syrians and others who had been trying to reach Greece are now employing different routes, it is clear that Africans and others remain willing to risk everything to flee repression, poverty and war.

A deal that went into effect on March 20 to deport migrants reaching Greece from Turkey has reduced the number of people coming over the Aegean, a perilous voyage that killed around 800 last year. But the policy appears to have prompted smugglers to return to previously abandoned dangerous routes through Libya to Italy — the same path used by the 800 migrants who drowned in an overloaded boat a year ago.

According to the survivors in Kalamata, a similar situation unfolded late last week, although the exact date was not clear, said William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Smugglers had arranged for a so-called mother ship to leave the Libyan coast and head toward Italy, loaded with “hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions.”

Soon afterward, a second boat about 30 yards long set off from near Tobruk, Libya, with between 100 and 200 people aboard. After several hours, it neared the larger ship, which was waiting somewhere off shore.

The smugglers began unloading migrants from the smaller boat onto the larger ship, the survivors told United Nations workers. As people boarded the big boat, it began to list. Then it capsized, spilling passengers into the sea, where most of them drowned amid a panicked frenzy. The survivors included people who had not yet left the smaller vessel, and a handful who managed to swim to it as the larger ship went down.

“I could see the bigger boat sinking,” Liban Qadar Jama, a native of Somaliland, was quoted as telling the Voice of America’s Somali Service this week. “We ran with the small boat we were in, as some migrants from the sunk boat desperately swam toward us. We could only save four of them,” he told the V.O.A.

In a statement, the refugee agency called for “increased regular pathways for the admission of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe” to “reduce the demand for people-smuggling and dangerous irregular sea journeys.”

Reports of the sinking emerged over the weekend on Facebook and social media from Somalia. Somalia’s ambassador to Egypt then told BBC Arabic, based on the social media reports, that more than 400 migrants were thought to have drowned.

Yet as the stories began to circulate, no one seemed to be able to confirm what had happened, and conflicting narratives have emerged about whether the mass sinking had occurred at all. Social media posts referred to migrant boats running from Egypt to Italy as being caught up in the disaster, although the United Nations said survivors did not confirm that in their accounts.

The Somali government issued a statement on Monday stating that 200 to 300 Somalis, including numerous teenagers, appeared to have drowned. But the Greek Coast Guard and the Italian and Maltese rescue authorities denied knowledge of the episode.

The International Organization for Migration said on Monday that it could not confirm any news of any deaths or shipwrecks, and the Egyptian Coast Guard and Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, said they had heard the news from the media and had no knowledge of any boats leaving Alexandria recently.

“There is so much pressure. You have a boat rescuing people in Libya, a boat arriving elsewhere and another sinking in Greece,” said Muhammad Al Kashef, an Egyptian activist working with refugees and migrants in Alexandria. “It just makes it very hard to document things.”

In fact, after nearly 13 hours of calls to Somali activists and community leaders in and out of Egypt, Mr. Kashef said what he was able to ascertain was only that “an unspecified number of people have drowned somewhere near Greece having left from Egypt” Monday morning.

“They told me they received calls from the survivors of Monday’s shipwreck in Greece saying their relatives died,” he added.

As the rumors spread, European officials rushed to make statements. President Sergio Mattarella of Italy said in Rome on Monday that Europe was looking at “yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean in which, it seems, several hundred people have died.”