The bodies of at least 74 African migrants have been found washed up on the shores of western Libya after their inflatable boat's engine was stolen, according to the Libyan Red Crescent and local officials from the Libyan coast guard.
The bodies were recovered Monday afternoon and evening near the city of Zawiya. The refugees appeared to have been dead for about two days prior to their recovery. Another 12 migrants from the boat remain missing and are "presumed drowned," according to the UN migration agency. The sole survivor of the tragedy was transferred to a local hospital in a coma.
It is unfortunately common for smugglers to pack large rubber boats with up to 180 migrants to send towards Italy and other parts of Europe, which make them easy to capsize. Poor conditions and accidents on these overcrowded vessels led to a record number of deaths over the past year.
But according to Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), this incident may have been a little different. A local IOM staff member had reported that "traffickers came and removed the engine from the boat and left the craft adrift," leaving the people on board completely helpless in open ocean.
"This is not a only horrible number of deaths in one incident but it strikes us as something that we haven't really seen much of, which is either deliberate punishment or murder of migrants," he said.
These kinds of cynical and often outright cruel measures taken by smugglers against refugees attempting to flee into Europe have been well documented over the course of the refugee crisis. As Peter Ford reported for The Christian Science Monitor in August 2016:
No longer do people-smugglers carry refugees to the Italian coast and then return home to Libya for another consignment.
Instead they pack boats with passengers, load just enough fuel for them to reach international waters, give basic instructions on how the engine works and which direction to head in, and then cast the migrants loose.
“It is not the intention that these boats make it to Europe,” a recent EU report found. “They are designed to reach … the high seas, to then trigger a search and rescue operation.”
Sometimes the smugglers leave a satellite telephone with their clients, along with a number for the Italian maritime rescue center in Rome, so that the refugees can call to tell somebody that they exist.
But while a number of rescue ships do patrol international waters between Libya and Europe in search of these migrants, they often arrive too late to help. And the longer the refugee crisis drags on, the more perilous the journey becomes for those who choose to make it, as smugglers grow ever cheaper.
"We are seeing the new boats, which are not equipped with anything, but they carry more people," said Libyan coast guard spokesman Ayoub Gassim. "This is going to be even more disastrous for the migrants."
The escape route between Libya and Italy is a popular but dangerous one for migrants fleeing poverty and conflict elsewhere in Africa. Libya, which has been in a state of civil war itself since 2011, is largely governed by local militias that often turn a profit from the trafficking, with its two main opposing governments busy competing for power in separate parts of the country.
The European Union hopes to stem the tide of migrants by sending money to the UN-brokered government in Tripoli (which is weak and not recognized by the rival government) and by training the Libyan coast guard. But many human rights groups have decried the EU's plan, which they say would strand migrants in the country and leave them open to further human rights abuses at the hands of the local militias.
Arjan Hehenkamp, head of Doctors Without Borders, criticized the plan, calling the EU "delusional about just how dangerous the situation in Libya really is."
Last year, 181,000 migrants attempted the crossing between Libya and Italy, 4,500 of which are known to have died on the way. The IOM said this latest discovery of bodies has brought the 2017 death toll up to more than 365.
This article contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.