More than 200 Italy-bound migrants, comprising Nigerians and nationals of other African countries, were feared dead after their boat from Libya capsized on Wednesday off the coast of Italy.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said the vessel was carrying migrants and asylum seekers from Somalia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad and Sudan.
The migrants were attempting to make their way to Italy from the conflict and unrest in North Africa.
The incident occurred about 40 miles off the coast of Lampedusa, an Island closer to North Africa than mainland Italy.
IOM spokesman in Geneva, Jean Philippe Chauzy told newsmen that 50 survivors were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard and by a local Italian fishing boat.
“What we are hearing from those survivors is that the boat left probably from the area of Tripoli, that the boat was heavily laden.
“The survivors are saying that about 300 people were on the boat. Fifty have survived.
So that means we still have 250 people, lost at sea, that are still missing.
“I would say that the survivors are quite traumatised by the ordeal that they have just gone through,” Chaucy said.
A statement from the head of the UN refugee agency expressed deep shock at the incident.
The UN agency said Italy’s coastguard had rescued 47 people, including a pregnant woman, but the other passengers are all feared to have drowned.
António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), lamented that many of the passengers had been refugees twice over.
“They fled war and persecution in their own countries and now, in their attempt to seek safety in Italy, they tragically lost their lives,” he said.
Guterres urged all countries patrolling the waters of the Mediterranean Sea to do everything possible to help boats in distress.
The UNHCR said since pro-freedom protests erupted across North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year, large numbers of people, notably including people fleeing unrest in Tunisia and Libya, have taken to boats to try to reach Europe.
Lampedusa has experienced a particularly high influx of arrivals.
The UNHCR said until the recent fighting Libya has served as transit and destination country for refugees.
The agency said it has recognised at least 8,000 refugees inside the country and another 3,000 people seeking asylum.