It could be one of the worst tragedies since the start of the migrant crisis in Europe.
Somalia’s government said on Monday about 200 or more Somalis may have died in the tragedy while trying to cross illegally to Europe. After talking to survivors, the UNHCR agency said the overall death toll might have been much higher.
“If confirmed, as many as 500 people may have lost their lives when a large ship went down in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy,” the UNHCR said.
The agency said the survivors — 37 men, three women and a three-year-old child — were rescued by a merchant ship and taken to Greece.
They recounted they had been among 100 to 200 people who set sail from Libya last week headed for Italy.
After several hours at sea, the traffickers tried to move them onto a bigger ship that was already packed with migrants. This ship sank before the survivors could board it. They then drifted at sea for up to three days before being saved.
The group was made up of 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, six Egyptians, and one Sudanese national.
The Somali government said on Monday the capsized boat had set sail from Egypt.
“The survivors told us that they had been part of a group of between 100 and 200 people who departed last week from a locality near Tobruk in Libya on a 30m (100ft) boat,” the UNHCR said in a statement.
“After sailing for several hours, the smugglers in charge of the boat attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions,” it said, adding the larger boat then capsized and sank.
News of the disaster emerged on the first anniversary of one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean in recent times, when an estimated 800 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast after the fishing boat they were sailing in collided with a mercantile vessel that had been attempting to rescue them.
Some 150,000 migrants reached Italy by boat in 2015, the vast majority sailing from Libya. So far this year, about 25,000 migrants have arrived, an increase of 4.7% over the same period last year, according to Interior Ministry data.
More than 3,700 people died in 2015 trying the make the perilous crossing over the Mediterranean, with 761 recorded as dead or missing in 2016.
On Saturday, Pope Francis again highlighted the humanitarian crisis by visiting the Greek island of Lesbos and returning to Rome with three refugee families who fled the conflict in Syria.