As many as 400 migrants are believed to have drowned off the Libyan coast after the boat they were traveling capsized — though the true number of victims may never be ascertained.
Andrej Mahecic, a spokesperson for UNHCR, told VICE News that authorities are still in the process of gathering more information about the tragedy through interviews with survivors and witnesses.
He said that the migrants' boat hit trouble on Monday night when it was about 74 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Passengers became agitated after spotting a commercial vessel, according to Mahecic, who said that their subsequent movement caused the boat to capsize and then sink.
The Italian navy ship Orion managed to rescue 142 survivors, while eight bodies were recovered. At the moment it is estimated that as many as 550 people were on board when the boat went down. Those who have not been found are counted as "missing and presumed dead," Mahecic said.
Even before the latest tragedy, well over 500 migrants had perished in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the UNHCR. The agency says that deaths have increased fifty-fold compared to the same period in 2014 — though reports on the toll vary.
Gemma Parkin, a spokesperson for Save the Children, told VICE News that it was difficult to accurately quantify the true number of deaths. Official figures are based only on bodies found washed ashore, retrieved from the water or discovered on boats.
"I don't think that anybody knows how many people have drowned," she said. "What we know is the amount of people who are arriving who are all claiming to have seen people dying."
Save the Children is currently working with some of the rescued migrants, but still haven't ascertained exactly what happened to them, Parkin said.
She added: "Usually during the winter months there aren't as many crossings because it's more dangerous, but because of the deteriorating situation in Libya we have seen a lot arriving."
Martin Xuereb — former commander of the Maltese Armed Forces and director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) — told VICE News: "What is happening is not unexpected, the writing was on the wall. What we need to do now is react to this crisis in a constructive manner. All entities need to come together and find solutions that first and foremost mitigate loss of life at sea. All should remove politics from Search and Rescue and put saving lives at sea at the top of the agenda."
He added: "The competent authorities also need to come down very strongly on traffickers preying on vulnerable persons. This abuse by traffickers is despicable."
In a statement sent to VICE News, Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "If the reports are confirmed, this past weekend would be among the deadliest few days in the world's most dangerous stretch of water for migrants and asylum seekers. But the unbearable number of lives lost at sea will only grow if the EU doesn't act now to ensure search-and-rescue operations across the Mediterranean."
The Italian-run search-and-rescue operation Mare Nostrum was credited with saving at least 100,000 lives, but was ended late last year because of budgetary concerns. The Italian government has repeatedly called for other European countries to contribute more to the efforts.
This means that there is currently no comprehensive search-and-rescue operation active in the Mediterranean — though various smaller operations have begun, including MOAS, which is privately-funded, and the EU-funded Operation Triton.
The Italian coastguard has rescued almost 10,000 migrants since the weekend, according to Amnesty International.
Mahecic told VICE News that the latest incident was a "stark reminder" that an "adequate replacement for Mare Nostrum" was still lacking. "There needs to be more urgent collective focus by all countries in the region," he said.
According to Mahecic, every third arrival into Europe in 2014 was fleeing Syria, while the next highest percentage of asylum seekers came from Eritrea. This indicated that the "push factors there — the conflict, the violence, the persecution" were large enough for migrants to risk their lives attempting to make the crossing.
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