News comment by Volker Türk, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, on new Mediterranean shipwreck

An overloaded boat of refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe as seen from the deck of the Italian Coastguard ship, the San Giorgio, during a Mediterranean patrol in 2014.   © UNHCR/Alfredo D'Amato

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is deeply saddened at the news of another shipwreck in the Mediterranean, which may have left up to 146 people dead or missing.

This morning in Lampedusa, our team interviewed the only survivor of a boat which is believed to have sunk in the Mediterranean with 147 passengers on board, including five children and several pregnant women. The 16-year old survivor said their boat left two days ago from Sabratha, in Libya, and started taking on water after a few hours of navigation. He survived the shipwreck by hanging to a fuel tank, until he was rescued by a Spanish ship operating under Operation Sophia.

This latest tragedy comes as a stark reminder of the vital importance of robust search and rescue capacities.

Saving lives at sea must remain the key priority for all and UNHCR commends the action of the Italian Coast Guard in coordination with Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

NGOs also play a crucial role in saving lives at sea, by providing additional and much needed rescue capacity. In 2016, 26 per cent of all rescue operations in the central Mediterranean were performed by NGOs, more than twice than the previous year.

The recent increase of sea arrivals to Italy, with some 23,085 people in 2017 so far, and the lower quality of vessels used by traffickers, including flimsy inflatable rafts that often do not last throughout the journey, make these rescue operations more needed than ever before.

According to a 2016 report by the Italian Coast Guard, the absence of satellite-phones on vessels, the high number of night departures from Libya in bad sea conditions and the use of rubber boats, with increasing numbers of passengers on board, also contribute to higher probability of shipwreck and sinking.

When adopting the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants on 19 September 2016, UN Member States commended efforts already made to rescue people in distress at sea and committed to intensifying international cooperation on the strengthening of search and rescue mechanisms.