Saturday, June 04, 2016

Europe Migrant Crisis: 104 Asylum Seekers Wash Up on Libya Beach; Hundreds Missing off Greece Coast
The bodies of at least 104 asylum seekers have washed up on a beach in the western Libyan town of Zwara, the navy said, as hundreds more were believed to be missing off the coast of Greece after a boat capsized.

"The number of bodies retrieved Thursday evening was 104, but the toll is expected to rise since an average boat carries 115 to 125 passengers," Libyan navy spokesman Colonel Ayoub Qassem said.

People smugglers have exploited the chaos gripping Libya since the 2011 uprising that overthrew dictator Moamar Gaddafi to traffic migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

It is a lucrative business for the smugglers, who cram asylum seekers into boats that are small and unsafe for the perilous journey to Italy just 300 kilometres from Libya's shores.

Thousands of asylum seekers try each year to make the crossing, but many drown when their boats founder.

Colonel Qassem said that asylum seeker boats leaving from western Libya usually set off from the port cities of Sabratha and Zwara, with passengers who are mostly African or Arabs from Morocco.

The identities of the bodies found on Thursday were not yet known.

Some 204,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe since January, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.

More than 2,500 people have died trying to make the crossing this year — the vast majority of them between Libya and Italy — as Europe battles its worst migration crisis since World War II.

Hundreds missing as boat capsizes off Greece

Meanwhile, at least nine people have died and a desperate effort was underway on Friday to find hundreds more believed missing after an asylum seeker boat capsized off the Greek island of Crete, the coastguard said.

Coastguard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said at least 340 people had been rescued, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said the vessel was "believed to have left Africa with at least 700 migrants on board".

It was the second asylum seeker vessel found in that area of the southern Aegean Sea since last week, indicating that people smugglers may be forging a new route to avoid NATO ships.

A coastguard spokeswoman said a major rescue operation was underway, including four ships that were passing through the area, in clear but windy conditions about 75 nautical miles south of Crete.

"The number of people in distress could be counted in the hundreds," she said.

It was not immediately clear where exactly the boat had left from or where it was headed, or the nationalities of those on board.

The coastguard spokeswoman said a passing ship spotted the sinking vessel off Crete, adding that the coastguard then rushed two patrol boats, a plane and a helicopter to the scene.

About half of the 25-metre-long boat was completely underwater, the spokeswoman said.

The deaths are the first in Greek waters since April, as a controversial March deal between the EU and Turkey, designed to halt the flow of asylum seekers using the popular Aegean route, has led to a sharp drop in traffic.


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