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A flag of the German NGO Sea-Watch, a flag reading "Leave No One Behind" and a German flag fly from the mast of the migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 as it patrols the search and rescue zone in international waters off the coast of Libya.

DARRIN ZAMMIT LUPI/Reuters

A boat carrying African migrants capsized off Libya’s coast Monday, leaving at least 57 people presumed dead, a UN migration official said. It was the latest disaster in the Mediterranean Sea involving migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

The vessel left the western coastal town of Khums on Sunday, said Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration.

She said there were at least 75 migrants on board, including women and children. Among the 57 presumed drowned were 20 women and two children, Ms. Msehli said.

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Eighteen of the migrants were rescued and returned to shore by fishermen and Libya’s coast guard, Ms. Msehli said.

The survivors, who are from Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia, reported the vessel had stopped because of an engine problem, then capsized amid bad weather, Ms. Msehli said.

Monday’s capsizing was the second sea disaster in less than a week off the Libyan coast involving Europe-bound migrants. At least 20 migrants went overboard from a vessel on Wednesday and were presumed dead, according to the UN migration agency.

There has been a spike in crossings and attempted crossings from Libya in recent months. Amnesty International has said that in the first six months of this year, more than 7,000 people intercepted at sea were forcibly returned to detention camps in Libya.

A migration agency report earlier this month said the number of migrants and refugees who died while attempting to reach Europe on dangerous sea crossings more than doubled so far this year, compared to the first six months of 2020.

The report said at least 1,146 people perished between January and June, with the Central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy being the deadliest, claiming 741 lives.

The deadliest shipwreck so far this year took place April 22 off Libya, when 130 people drowned despite the ship sending multiple distress calls.

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Libya has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed long-time autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Rights groups and officials at UN agencies that work with migrants and refugees have for years cited survivor testimony about systematic abuse in detention camps in Libya. These include forced labour, beatings, rapes and torture. The abuse often accompanies efforts to extort money from families before migrants are allowed to leave Libya on traffickers’ boats.

Earlier this month, Libyan maritime authorities acknowledged that one of their coast guard vessels had fired warning shots at a migrant boat it was chasing in the Mediterranean. They said it was an apparent effort to stop the vessel from crossing to Europe and endangering the lives of the migrants onboard.

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