Some 300 feared dead in fresh Mediterranean tragedy

The dead were on four dinghies, one of which is missing. A total 82 survivors from three boats have been taken to southern Italy's Lampedusa Island.

Italian coastguards arrive at the quay in Lampedusa with survivors of this week's tragedy in the Mediterranean.  © UNHCR/F.Fossi

GENEVA, February 11 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Wednesday said it was "shocked" at evidence that some 300 migrants and refugees may have died after setting off from the coast of Libya in four dinghies at the weekend.

UNHCR had reported yesterday that at least 29 people died on Sunday on one of the boats, which was carrying 105 people and trying to reach Europe. "Reports gathered [since] by UNHCR from the Italian Coastguard and the survivors in Lampedusa now suggest some 300 people are confirmed missing," the agency said in a statement, adding that they were mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The other victims were on board two dinghies found on Monday, but a fourth dinghy mentioned by survivors is missing. A total 82 survivors have disembarked at Italy's Lampedusa Island, after being rescued by Italian coastguards and a merchant vessel.

"This is a tragedy on an enormous scale and a stark reminder that more lives could be lost if those seeking safety are left at the mercy of the sea. Saving lives should be our top priority. Europe cannot afford to do too little too late," said UNHCR Europe Bureau Director Vincent Cochetel.

Survivors confirmed to UNHCR that they had left on Saturday from Libya on rubber dinghies and had been at sea without food and water. Aside from those on the first boat that UNHCR reported on, only two out of about 100 passengers survived on a second dinghy and seven out of about 100 people on a third one. A search is under way for the fourth dinghy. The youngest of the missing was a 12-year-old boy.

"UNHCR reiterates its concern about the lack of a strong search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Europe's Triton operation, which is run by the European border protection agency Frontex, is not focused on search and rescue and is not providing the necessary tools to cope with the scale of the crises. Saving lives must be a priority for the European Union," the statement said.

At least 218,000 people, including migrants and refugees, crossed the Mediterranean by irregular routes last year and this trend is expected to continue in 2015. About 3,500 boat people lost their lives trying to cross to Europe in 2014.