“Terrible news coming in of potentially large loss of life in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya,” Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the UNHCR, said on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Around 60 people have been rescued and returned to shore. At least 40 people are estimated to be dead or missing.”
The comments came as Ayoub Gassim, a spokesman for Libya’s coastguard, told The Associated Press news agency that at least five bodies, including that of a child, were recovered near the western town of Khoms, about 120km east of the capital, Tripoli.
He said at least 65 people, mostly from Sudan, had been rescued and that search operations were under way for those still missing. The survivors also included people from Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, according to Yaxley.
Alarm Phone, an independent support group for people crossing the Mediterranean Sea, said up to 100 people were on board the capsized vessel.
The group said it received a call from those on the boat, who “were in severe distress, crying and shouting, telling us that people had died already”.
“These tragedies are preventable. Cannot accept large loss of life each month as normal,” Yaxley wrote on Twitter, calling for the return of European Union vessels in rescue efforts and for NGOs to be “free to save lives at sea”.
Search flights grounded
Libya became a major conduit for migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after the uprising that toppled and killed longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Traffickers and armed groups have exploited Libya’s chaos since his overthrow.
In recent years, the EU has partnered with the coastguard and Libyan forces to prevent people from making the sea journey to Europe.
Rights groups say those efforts have left people at the mercy of brutal armed groups or confined in squalid detention centres that lack adequate food and water.
Last month, an air raid on a detention centre housing migrants and refugees killed at least 44 people and wounded more than 130, according to the UN Support Mission in Libya.
Meanwhile, in Europe, two humanitarian groups that have been flying search-and-rescue missions for refugees and migrants out of the Italian island of Lampedusa said Italy’s civil aviation authority to ground their planes.
The authority, ENAC, confirmed the grounding of the Moonbird, a Cirrus SR22 single-engine aircraft operated by the German group Sea-Watch, and Colibri, a MCR-4S aircraft operated by French group Pilotes Volontaires. It said the light aircraft are approved for recreational and not professional use.
Both groups dispute the decision.
Ruben Neugebauer, spokesman for Sea-Watch, called the grounding political, saying the Moonbird is in compliance with Italian and national norms.
He said the planes document human rights violations by ships that do not respond to rescue calls or by EU-deployed aircraft that signal the presence of migrant boats to Libyan authorities so they are returned to Libya.
Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean situation, expressed concern over Italy’s move on Twitter.
“Voluntary pilots save lives at sea by spotting boats in distress & informing maritime rescue centres … The tragedy today demonstrates that the central #Mediterranean Sea needs more rescue capacity!” he said.
Also on Tuesday, hard-line Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini banned a German humanitarian ship carrying 100 refugees and migrants rescued off Libya from entering Italian waters.
The German charity, Lifeline, has urged the German government to help identify a safe harbour.
Italy and Malta are the closest European ports, Italy has enacted a policy to exclude humanitarian rescue ships from bringing migrants to its ports.