Hundreds of migrants are thought to have drowned when a ship traveling between Libya and Italy capsized at some stage over the last week, according to statements by survivors.
The date of the actual sinking remains unclear, but the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) stated on Wednesday that it has spoken to 41 survivors — 37 men, three women, and a three-year-old child — who were rescued by a merchant ship on April 16. This group, which includes 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, 6 Egyptians, and a Sudanese national, is now being kept at Kalamata in Greece's Peloponnese peninsula.
The survivors said they departed last week from Libya, on a 30-meter-long boat with between 100 and 200 people on board. Several hours into the trip, the smugglers controlling the vessel tried to transfer their passengers to a larger ship with many more already on board. During the transfer, the overcrowded boat sank, leaving only those who had not yet boarded the new boat alive.
Those who escaped ended up drifting at sea for several days before they were seen and rescued.
"Two-hundred-and-forty of us set off from Libya but then the traffickers made us get on to a bigger wooden boat around 30m in length that already had at least 300 people in it," Abdul Kadir, from Somalia, said in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday. "As the boat was filling [with] water I jumped out and then I [was] swimming… I saw a lot of friends and families saying, 'we need to be saved, we need to be saved' but no one could help because everyone of us wanted to safe his [own] life."
Kadir continued: "Everyone didn't think about the dangers of the journey but only thought about how to live and how to get a better life. Everyone [was] dreaming of living in Europe, but no one imagined how dangerous the journey is."
"My wife and my baby drowned in front of me," Muaz from Ethiopia told the BBC. "I was one of the few who managed to swim back to the smaller boat."
The news of the tragedy was first reported on Monday when a Somalian official told BBC Arabic that as many as 400 people had died after four boats capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on a journey between Egypt and Italy. It was later reported that the official had only seen social media posts, and couldn't confirm anything further about the reported disaster.
Later on Monday, Italy's President Sergio Mattarella also confirmed hearing the rumors, saying "it seems several hundred people have died." Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Somalian presidency told VICE News that same day: "So far we have not got solid information about this matter. Our embassy in Cairo is working hard to find out what exactly happened and how many Somalis were on board. We have conflicting reports about the nationalities. Some say they include Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean, but we can't confirm."
On Wednesday, the Somalian spokesperson told VICE News that they are still treating the reports with caution while waiting for solid confirmation about the incident.
A student and member of the Somali community in Cairo told VICE News that smugglers had confirmed to him that a boat with between 300 and 400 people on board had sank. "Of these, half were Somalian." The student said that of 37 survivors now in Greece, 23 of them were Somalis. "It was the most painful tragedy," he said.
Meanwhile, other NGOs working in the area, as well as the Italian coast guard, struggled to confirm the reports, highlighting how difficult it is to accurately document the scale of deaths on the Mediterranean where, according to data collected by the UN Refugees Agency (UNHCR), 761 people have died or gone missing already this year. If confirmed, the latest deaths could bring this figure to well over 1,000.
Monday's reports also came exactly a year after at least 800 people died when another boat sank in the Mediterranean, in an incident that caused an international outcry and prompted European Union ministers to hold crisis talks.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd