Up to 180 people were feared dead in a latest shipwreck of a migrant boat off the Libyan coasts, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.
The United Nations (UN) migration agency released the figure after gathering testimonies from four survivors, three men and one woman, who were rescued and brought to the port town of Trapani in Sicily on Monday evening.
“They said there were an estimated 180 people on board of a barge,” Flavio Di Giacomo, IOM spokesperson and coordination officer for the Mediterranean, told Xinhua.
“The engine broke down some five hours after setting sail from an unspecific location in Libya, and the boat started slowly to take on water and to sink, some 30 nautical miles off Libya.”
The four survivors — two Ethiopian and two Eritreans — reported that several hours passed before rescuers came to save them.
“One of the men told us he was travelling with his wife, who did not survive. He also tried desperately to save another woman, yet she also drowned after some hours in the waters,” Di Giacomo said.
All of the people on board were believed to be migrants and refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, according to the officer.
The survivors were finally saved by a French vessel operating as part of the rescue mission of the European Union (EU) border agency Frontex. On Sunday, they were transferred to a Norwegian ship of the same mission, the Siem Pilot, which brought them to southern Italy.
Besides the four survivors, rescuers also recovered four bodies in the area. The Siem Pilot reached the port of Trapani in the evening of Monday, also bringing to land another 34 migrants rescued in a previous operation.
Some 2,876 arrivals by sea were registered up to January 15, including 2,185 in Italy and 691 in Greece, according to IOM data published on Tuesday.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR put the figure at 2,353 in Italy alone in the same period. Arrivals had been 5,273 throughout the same month last year, according to UHNCR.
The inflow of migrants and refugees to Europe by sea has been relentless so far, despite the winter season and rough sea conditions.
While overall figures showed a downward trend, Italy remained on the frontline of the crisis with a record high of 180,375 arrivals in 2016.
In a statement on Tuesday, the IOM stressed many survivors kept attempting the dangerous sea crossing also to flee violence and abuses in Libya.
“They claimed to have no option but to put themselves in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers, who often forced them onto boats, despite the rough sea conditions,” the UN agency reported.
“Many people told us that, when they get to the beach, those who change their mind and do not want to go are forced to get on board, sometimes with violence,” Federico Soda, director of IOM’s Coordination Office for the Mediterranean in Rome, said in the statement.