Two boats carrying an estimated 500 people sank off the coast of Libya overnight Thursday, as the United Nations revealed that the number of refugees and migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean so far in 2015 has exceeded 300,000.
Ibrahim Al-Attoushi, an official for the Red Crescent, said Friday morning that 82 bodies were recovered after they washed up on Libyan shores near the western town of Zuwara. Another 198 people were rescued, according to Reuters.
Later, his colleague Hussein Asheini, the head of Libya's Red Crescent in the coastal city, said at least 105 people had drowned, the BBC reported.
Speaking at a news conference in Geneva Friday morning, UN spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said that "it looks like at least a couple of hundred people died" in the sinkings.
She also said that workers for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had spoken to survivors, who said that smugglers had beaten people with sticks when they begged for air after being locked in the hold of one of the vessels:
"They told us the smugglers were charging people money for allowing them just to come out of the hole to breathe. One survivor, his name was Abdel, he's 25 years old from Sudan, told our colleagues 'We didn't want to go down there but they beat us with sticks to force us. We had no air, we were trying to get back up through the hatch and breathe through the cracks in the ceiling. But other passengers were scared that the boat would capsize so they pushed us back down and beat us too. Some were stamping on our hands."
Two boats sank, according to the BBC. The first capsized early Thursday, and was carrying 100 people. The second capsized later, and had around 400 people on board.
Asheini said that one of the vessels had been found waterlogged at sea, and had been towed to port by fishermen and the Libyan coast guard. Rescuers then had to break the ship's deck to reach the people trapped inside, AP reported.
As Libya is lacking proper navy ships, rescuers had to rely on the fisherman's vessels to conduct their operations. "We, the Red Crescent, work with nothing. Some fishermen help us with a boat," Ibrahim Al-Attoushi told Reuters.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Save The Children CEO Justin Forsyth said the migrant deaths "highlight the failure of Europe's migration and refugee policy. We should be ashamed to see children dying on our doorstep."
The UNHCR's Fleming, said that the tragedy coincided with a dramatic rise in the numbers of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean this year: "And this meanwhile the number of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean people has exceeded 300,000, this includes 200,000 people landing in Greece and 110,000 people landing in Italy."
"This represents a large increase from last year when about 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean during the whole of 2014," she added.
She added that, prior to today's tragedy, 2,400 people had died attempting to make the crossing so far in 2015.