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Dozens of refugees found dead in drifting boat off Libyan coast

At least 900 migrants have died or have gone missing while attempting to reach Europe by sea so far this year
Migrants and refugees in the port of Palermo after being rescued at sea off the Libyan coast, 18 April (AFP)

Fishermen found the bodies of 28 people, including four children, in waters off the coast of Libya after nearly 9000 mainly African migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean over the Easter weekend.

“Their boat stopped in the middle of the water because the engine was broken,” said Ahmaida Khalifa Amsalam, Libya’s interior ministry’s security commander told the Independent on Wednesday.

According to Amsalam, the victims appeared to have died of thirst and hunger after their vessel was left drifting at sea. They were buried in a cemetery for migrants whose bodies had been washed up on the coast of Libya. 

Smugglers have increasingly resorted to sending migrants off into flimsy boats that are unable to survive the crossing to Europe.

Although many boats have sunk the Mediterranean, some have been intercepted and forced back by the Libyan coastguard while others have been rescued by EU officials and aid agencies.

Worrying trend

Wednesday's discovery was the latest incident of refugees being found dead inside boats.

Observers have said that an emerging trend suggests that engines are being removed or sabotaged at sea.

Joel Millman, from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) told the Independent, that boat’s engine was believed to have been removed at sea, possibly by smugglers or armed gangs.

“In most cases you don’t find remains in a boat – you find them washed up or floating, although there have been cases of suffocation on board,” he told The Independent.

“We have heard about arguments occurring with smugglers, where people refuse to get in a boat because they are concerned it isn’t seaworthy.

“Then there’s violence and people are killed, while the rest are forced inside," he added.

The bodies of more than 70 migrants washed up in a dinghy in Zawiyah earlier this year. Aid agencies said suggested the “deliberate punishment or murder of migrants”, reported the British newspaper. 

At the same time, IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said that better spring weather had encouraged smugglers to take migrants out of detention centres in Libya.

At least 900 migrants have died or have gone missing while attempting to reach Europe by sea so far this year, while 36,000 have been rescued, against 24,000 last year, Doyle said.

Some 36,000 migrants have been rescued, against 24,000 at this time last year, he said.

The migrants, many from Nigeria and Senegal with some from Bangladesh, are among an estimated 20,000 held by criminal gangs in irregular detention centres in Libya, said the IOM.

IOM reported earlier this month that growing numbers of African migrants passing through Libya are traded in what they call "slave markets" before being held for ransom, forced labour or sexual exploitation.
"So there's a full-on economy of trafficking or trading in migrants who think they are going to a better life in Europe and end up effectively in a gulag of exploitation," Doyle said.
Distressing images of African migrants being plucked from heaving seas or the coffin-strewn aftermath of major sinkings have become a regular feature of television news bulletins since the crisis began spiralling out of control four years ago.

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