Hundreds of African migrants die in shipwreck off Libya's coast

Dangerous journey: An undated video grab from Libyan television footage shows rescued African migrants arriving at the port of Tripoli. More than 300 Africans, including women and children, are feared to have drowned after their boats capsized off Libya during a new upsurge of illegal migration to Europe, officials said Tuesday.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

Hundreds of African and Arab migrants are feared dead after several rickety boats smuggling them to a better life in Europe ran into trouble off the coast of Libya. One boat is confirmed to have sunk in choppy seas kicked up by strong winds from the Libyan interior.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesman for the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), told The New York Times that the capsized boat held 257 people, 23 of whom were rescued by workers on a nearby oil rig.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr. Chauzy said that several boats had left Libya in the past two days, each carrying hundreds of people, and that three may have sunk. A fourth was towed back to shore, with 356 migrants on board.

“The reality is that most of these people will have drowned,” Chauzy told the FT. “There is no safety equipment, there are no life boats. People are packed onto the boats in every inch of space.”

Agence-France Presse reports that the Libyan coast guard is currently looking for the other two boats, but that IOM officials caution that it is not clear “if these are fishing boats or had migrants on board.”

Libya has become an increasingly popular destination for poor migrants seeking passage to Europe, and for human traffickers willing to smuggle them there. For usually exorbitant sums, migrants can pay human traffickers to smuggle them to the small Italian island of Lampedusa on overloaded, unseaworthy ships.

Accidents are common, and many ships are simply abandoned at sea.

But if migrants do arrive on Lampedusa, they have a shot at traveling to other European countries thanks to open border agreements between EU member states.

According to the IOM, more than 37,000 were ferried to Lampedusa from points in North Africa in 2008.

Chauzy says that in past years, smugglers avoided making the journey in winter months, when cold weather and high winds made ships more likely to capsize. That trend is now over, though.

“It is no longer a seasonal trend. It’s ongoing,” Chauzy told The New York Times. “The arrivals on Lampedusa are regular.” Economic woes may behind that changing trend.

Despite a growing financial crisis and rising unemployment in Europe, emigration – either legal or illegal – it is still an alluring prospect for many Africans.

The Monitor has covered African migration to Europe in some depth over the past few years.

In December, we ran a story about how the small European island nation of Malta is becoming a way station for Africans coming to Europe.

This story from 2007, chronicles the dangerous sea voyage Somalis make to Yemen in search of a better life.

And in 2006, we ran this story from the other side of the African continent showing the changing routes West Africans were taking to get to Spain's Canary Islands.

But now, the economic crisis may increase the flow of migrants into Europe.

In January, the International Labor Organization’s Global Employment Trends report warned that global unemployment in 2009 could rise by 17 million to 30 million workers.

The weight of that downturn falls heavily on the developing world, with as many as 200 million workers at risk of being pushed into “extreme poverty.”

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