ROME A newborn baby and four pregnant women are among 31 migrants feared drowned off the coast of Libya after their boat suffered a puncture and sank while trying to reach southern Europe's shores, the U.N. refugee agency said on Monday.
Twenty-two migrants rescued from the sea and taken to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa told the UNHCR agency that 53 people were travelling on their inflatable boat when it ran into difficulties on Friday, the third day of their journey.
They said the boat filled with water following the puncture and fuel from the motor started seeping out, leaving five passengers with burns.
Survivors said they were in the water for five hours before two merchant ships redirected by the Italian coastguard arrived to rescue them about 29 miles off Libya's coast and take them to reception centers in Italy.
The 31 other people, including the baby and eight women, four of whom were pregnant, are still missing and feared drowned.
Several of the missing are relatives of the survivors, who are "in a state of shock" according to the agency, adding that they needed urgent psychological support.
"Yet another tragedy at sea shows how once again people who are fleeing war and persecution are risking their lives in dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean to find security in Europe," the agency said in a statement.
It estimated that 7,800 migrants reached the Italian coast in the first six months of this year.
North Africa is a launch-point for migration to southern Europe, with Italy the main destination. Thousands of people have been killed attempting the dangerous crossing in overcrowded and frequently unsafe boats.
This group of migrants came mainly from sub-Saharan Africa and departed from Libya, Italy's coastguard said.
Pope Francis this month visited Lampedusa to commemorate the people who have died when making such journeys.
(Reporting by Catherine Hornby; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)