At least 65 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on Friday when a smuggling boat carrying them sank some 83km off the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax, according to Reuters.
The agency added that the boat had left Libya on Thursday and was heading toward Italy when it sent out a distress signal overnight.
The United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR said the vessel had faced rough seas.
“This is a tragic and terrible reminder of the risks still faced by those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean,” said the UNHCR special envoy for the central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, in a statement.
Fishing boats near the vessel managed to save 16 people, according to the Tunisian Defence Ministry. Tunisian navy ships brought the survivors to the port city of Zarzis, where they are being questioned by Tunisian authorities, according to local media. One of the migrants has been hospitalised.
While the UNHCR said 65 people died, other sources indicated a higher death toll. Most of the passengers on the doomed vessel reportedly came from sub-Saharan Africa, although citizens of Morocco and Bangladesh were allegedly among the survivors.
“We will probably never know the exact number of those who died,” said Tunisian-based Red Crescent official, Mongi Slim, in a statement.
Even with 65 dead, the Friday tragedy is the deadliest sinking during the Mediterranean migrant route since January this year, when some 117 migrants went missing after leaving Libya in a rubber dinghy.
Most of them remain unaccounted for, according to the UN’s the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The IOM spokesperson Joel Millman said 17,000 migrants and refugees have reached Europe so far in 2019, or some 30% fewer than during the same period this year. The agency said 443 have died.