UN says 700 migrants feared dead in Mediterranean shipwrecks in one week
POZZALLO, Sicily – The Associated PressOver 700 migrants are feared dead in three Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks south of Italy in the last few days as they tried desperately to reach Europe in unseaworthy smuggling boats, the United Nations’ refugee agency said May 29.
The shipwrecks over three days appear to account for the largest loss of life reported in the Mediterranean since April 2015, when a single ship sank with an estimated 800 people trapped inside.
At the same time, 19 refugees were also rescued in the English Channel as they sought to reach Britain from France, according to a statement from the British Coastguard.
Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UNHCR, told The Associated Press by phone that an estimated 100 people are missing from a smugglers’ boat that capsized May 25 off the coast of Libya. The Italian navy took horrific pictures of that capsizing even as it rushed to rescue as many people as possible from the sea.
Sami said about 550 other migrants and refugees are missing from a smuggling boat that capsized in the morning of May 26 after leaving the western Libyan port of Sabratha a day earlier.
Refugees who saw that boat sink told her agency it was carrying about 670 people, did not have an engine and was being towed by another packed smuggling boat before it capsized. She said about 25 people from the capsized boat managed to reach the first boat and survive, 79 others were rescued by international patrol boats and 15 bodies were recovered.
Italian police said survivors identified the commander of the boat with the working engine as a 28-year-old Sudanese man, who has been arrested.
In a third shipwreck on May 27, Sami said 135 people were rescued, 45 bodies were recovered and an unknown number of migrants were still missing.
Because the bodies went missing in the open sea, it is impossible to verify the numbers who died. Humanitarian organizations and rescue authorities typically rely on survivors’ accounts to piece together what happened.
Italian police corroborated the UNHCR description of the May 26 sinking in their own interviews with survivors, but came up with different numbers of possible missing.
They say, according to survivors, the boat being towed was carrying about 500 migrants when it starting taking on water after about eight hours at sea. Efforts to empty the water – with a line of migrants passing a few 5-liter bailing cans – were insufficient and the boat was completely under water after an hour and a half, police said. At that point, the commander of the first smuggling boat doing the towing ordered the tow rope to be cut.
The migrants on the top deck of the sinking boat jumped into the sea, while those below deck, estimated at 300, sank with the ship, police said. Of those who jumped into the water, just 90 were rescued.
Survivors were taken to the Italian ports of Taranto on the mainland and Pozzallo on the island of Sicily. Sami says the U.N. agency is trying to gather information with sensitivity considering that most of the new arrivals are either shipwreck survivors or traumatized by what they saw.
Italy’s southern islands are the main destinations for countless numbers of smuggling boats launched from the shores of lawless Libya each week packed with people seeking jobs and safety in Europe. Hundreds of migrants drown each year attempting the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.
Warmer waters and calmer weather of late have only increased the migrants’ attempts to reach Europe. Last week, over 4,000 migrants were rescued at sea in one day alone by an Italian-led naval operation.
19 migrants rescued from boat in English Channel
Meanwhile, the British coastguard said it rescued 19 migrants on May 29 from the Channel after their inflatable boat began to take on water.
“The rhib [rigid-hulled inflatable boat], with 19 people on board was located at 2 a.m. and the incident handed over to Border Force,” it said in a statement, according to AFP.
Thousands of people have been massed in northern France for months as they try to reach Britain where they believe they will have a better chance of finding employment, according to French and British charities.
Calais coastguard organization SNSM assisted in the rescue operation, according to its president, Bernard Barron.
“We were called for help... to search between Calais and Dover for a boat carrying about 20 people,” he told AFP.
Helicopters from England and France took part in the search.
The passengers were taken to the nearby port of Dover to be interviewed by Border Force officers, the Home Office said.
“The castaways, who were migrants, called their families, who then alerted the authorities, and rescue missions were triggered on both sides of the Channel,” said Barron.
“This confirms our fears: the smugglers are willing to take extreme measures, but the Channel is a real highway, presenting a great danger for this type of crossing,” he said.