At least 94 people, including a pregnant woman and two children, died when a boat capsized and caught fire off the island of Lampedusa, the Italian coast guard told CNN on Thursday.
The coast guard has been able to save at least 151 people, and the rescue operation is ongoing.
The boat is thought to have been carrying up to 500 people. Those aboard include Eritreans, Somalis and Ghanaians, the coast guard said, and the boat is thought to have launched from Libya's coast.
Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to enter European Union countries.
They were likely refugees, which is technically not "illegal". Nearby Malta is also a huge destination for people trying to leave Africa and the Middle East to get into Europe.