A refugee smuggler’s boat crammed with nearly 1000 people overturned off Libya’s coast as rescuers approached, causing what could be the Mediterranean’s deadliest known migrant tragedy and intensifying pressure on the European Union to finally meet demands for decisive action.
Up to 1,600 people are now believed to have drowned this year alone, more than 1,100 of them, about the equivalent of 5 passenger planes full of people have drowned last week alone. There have been reports of a further two boats which have made distress calls today with more lives feared lost.
Italian prosecutors said a Bangladeshi survivor flown to Sicily for treatment told them 950 people were on board, including hundreds who had been locked in the hold by smugglers. Earlier, authorities said a survivor told them 700 migrants were aboard.
European governments must prioritise setting up an immediate search and rescue plan to prevent the escalating death toll of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, Amnesty International said ahead of a European Union (EU) foreign and interior ministers meeting in Luxembourg today.
Kate Allen, Amnesty UK Director – who will be flying into Lampedusa on Wednesday – said:
“There is an emergency in the Mediterranean and all of Europe needs to respond to it. History will judge us for turning our backs, while desperate people drowned.
“The equivalent of five passenger planes full of people have drowned last week alone, and this is only the start of the summer. If they had been holiday makers, instead of migrants, imagine the response.
“The floating bodies of these desperate fathers, mothers and children are Europe’s shame.
“We need to reinstate the search-and-rescue programme immediately, and it needs proper, pan-European funding. That includes the UK playing its part.”
Survivor accounts of the number aboard the 20-metre vessel varied, with the Italian Coast Guard saying that the capsized boat had a capacity for “hundreds” of people.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said authorities were “not in a position to confirm or verify” how many were on board when the boat set out from Libya.
Eighteen ships joined the rescue effort, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies had been pulled from the water by nightfall, Renzi said.
A Bangladeshi survivor said about 300 people were locked in the hold by smugglers when the vessel set out. He said some 200 of the boat’s passengers were women and several dozen were children.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose nation joined the search effort, called it the “biggest human tragedy of the last few years”.
Since the start of 2014, Italy has rescued nearly 200,000 people at sea, including 11,000 arrivals in the eight days up to Saturday.
We may never know exactly how many people died in Sunday morning’s shipwreck off Libya, but the United Nations refugee agency has confirmed the deaths of 800 migrants after speaking to survivors.
Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Tuesday morning:
We can say that 800 are dead
There were a little over 800 people on board, including children aged between 10 and 12. There were Syrians, about 150 Eritreans, Somalians… They had left Tripoli at about 8 am on Saturday.
All indications point to a continued rise in the number of migrants and refugees making this trip as the weather improves, violence and persecution continue in countries like Syria and Eritrea, and instability persists in Libya.
The European Union proposed doubling the size of its Mediterranean search and rescue operations on Monday, as the first bodies were brought ashore of as many as 900 people. Three other rescue operations were underway on Monday to save hundreds more migrants in peril on overloaded vessels making the journey from the north coast of Africa to Europe.