Hundred of migrants attempting to reach Europe from Libya are feared to have drowned after their boat capsized.

The Italian coast guard rescued 144 people from the sinking vessel on Monday and air and sea search operations remain underway to find any survivors.

The boat is believed to have been carrying around 550 migrants, many of whom were children, and capsized a day after leaving Libya.

Nine bodies have been recovered.

More than 8,000 migrants have been picked up by Italian authorities on boats travelling to Lampedusa and Sicily in the last week, and officials have warned that that number is likely to rise as the weather improves and more people decide to chance the treacherous waters to reach the safety of the EU.

The UN estimates that more than 500 people have died attempting to cross from Libya to Italy since the start of the year. This number is 30 times more than last year, and demonstrates the desire of people to flee the increasingly unstable situation in Libya and other countries in Africa and the Middle East.

In a statement, Raffaela Milano, Italy-Europe Programme Director of Save the Children, said that children who had arrived form Libya reported a situation of “extreme violence” in the country, with smugglers the only chance they have to get away from the danger and uncertainty.

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