Fifty-four asylum seekers died of dehydration after they set sail from Libya in an attempt to reach Italy, the United Nations refugee agency said.
There was only one survivor, an Eritrean man, who said the boat took off from Libya in late June. He was discovered off the Tunisian coast Monday night.
“I call upon all vessels at sea to be on heightened alert for migrants and refugees needing rescue in the Mediterranean,” said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, who heads the U.N. refugee agency. “The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seaways in the world and it is imperative that the time-honored tradition of rescue at sea be upheld.”
The survivor, who was found floating on top of a jerry can and remains of the mostly deflated rubber boat, said that many of the people, himself included, drank sea water after their supplies ran out. Most of the people who died were from Eritrea, a closed-off and repressive North African nation that borders Ethiopia to the north.
“[The man] said problems on the boat started right away and that unfortunately they weren’t even permitted to bring a bottle of water. So when they got lost and the voyage went on, people started to feel ill and died because of the lack of water,” Laura Boldrini, a spokesperson with the U.N. refugee agency, was quoted by the Italy-based Adnkronos news agency as saying.
So far in 2012, the refugee agency said at least 170 people have died trying to sail across from Libya to Europe. Around 1,300 succeeded in reaching Italy. There is reportedly a boat currently carrying 50 Eritreans and Somalis in the Mediterranean heading for Italy.