At least 239 desperate migrants are understood to have died in two shipwrecks off the coast of Libya.
The United Nations refugee agency said that the tragic migrants are believed to have drowned, taking the death toll which was already the highest on record in the Mediterranean Sea this year even higher.
According to survivors, two boats which were dangerous overcrowded broke up just off the Libyan coast, spilling passengers into the sea.
Thirty-one people managed to survive and have been taken to Lampedusa, an Italian island which has been a hub for rescue operations.
So far, reports have not been verified but it is very common for migrant boats to be filled so far beyond capacity that they sink. Hundreds of migrants have died in this way.
If the latest death toll does turn out to be true, that would take the terrible death toll in the Mediterranean to 4,220 so far this year.
The UN described the figures as “appalling”.
Twenty-nine survivors on the first boat have reported that the capsize happened after wooden planks at the bottom of the rubber dinghy broke up a few hours after the vessel left the Libyan shore.
Survivors said that there were children and pregnant women on board, although none of them are understood to have made it to shore.
Those who did survive said they were left trying to stay afloat in cold water for hours before they were rescued.
Those who were rescued on the second boat said there had been at least 120 people on board the vessel, which they say had problems as soon as it set off.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said: “I am deeply saddened by another tragedy on the high seas. . . . So many lives could be saved through more resettlement and legal pathways to protection.The Mediterranean is a deadly stretch of sea for refugees and migrants, yet they still see no other option but to risk their lives to cross it.”
Most of the migrants are believed to have come from sub-Saharan Africa, although the UN is still trying to establish the facts of the incident.
The European Union is said to be searching for further survivors or wreckage in a joint operation with NATO.
Judith Sunderland, the associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that the EU remained focused on helping those in distress and bringing them safely to Europe.