migranti tutrska
Photograph: EPA/FILIP SINGER

Up to 500 people may have died in a major shipwreck in the Mediterranean, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Wednesday, after hearing from dozens of survivors whose accounts backed up previous media reports.

The accident, which occured at an unknown location between Libya and Italy around April 13, "could be one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants in the last 12 months," the Geneva-based agency said in a statement.

It was released a day after the UNHCR sent a team to interview 41 survivors, including three women and a three-year-old child, who were rescued by a passing merchant ship and taken to the Greek port of Kalamata, southern Peloponnese.

There were 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, 6 Egyptians and a Sudanese among them, and they said they were part of a group of between 100 and 200 people who departed last week from near the Libyan city of Tobruk, the UNHCR said.

After sailing for several hours, the smugglers in charge of the 30-metre-long boat tried to transfer the migrants to a larger ship overcrowded with hundreds of people, which capsized and sunk during the operation.

"The 41 survivors include people who had not yet boarded the larger vessel, as well as some who managed to swim back to the smaller boat. They drifted at sea possibly for three days before being spotted and rescued on 16 April," UNHCR said.

News of the accident was first reported Monday by BBC Arabic and Voice of America, but it could not initially be confirmed by the authorities in Greece, Libya, Egypt or Italy, nor by the UNHCR or the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

There are currently no reports that bodies have been found.

The UN agency said refugees and asylum-seekers needed to be offered legal ways of entering Europe, for example through resettlement and humanitarian admission programme, "to reduce the demand for people smuggling and dangerous irregular sea journeys."

There are concerns that more migrants will embark on the perilous central Mediterranean sea route this year, now that a controversial migrant returns deal between Turkey and the European Union discourages asylum seekers from travelling to Greece.

The EU commissioner for migration matters, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said in Brussels there were "the very first signs that smugglers are trying to divert the flows [away from Balkan route and] towards other directions."

In a regular report on Tuesday, the UNHCR said more than 153,000 sea migrants had landed in Greece since January 1, compared to less than 25,000 in Italy. But in the April 11-17 week, Italy recorded 4,651 arrivals, while Greece had only 469.

Separately, IOM estimated that 1,233 migrants had drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of the year, compared to 3,772 during the whole of 2015 and some 3,279 in the previous 12 months. This does not include the numbers feared dead in the most recent reported shipwreck.

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