ROME: Eighty more migrants are feared drowned after another shipwreck off Italy, just days after dozens of others suffocated in the hold of an overcrowded fishing boat.
The victims “met an atrocious end at the hands of unscrupulous death merchants who profit from desperation to make money out of journeys carried out in inhuman conditions,” Italy’s Interior Minister Angelo Alfano told the Senate on Wednesday.
In the latest tragedy, a group of 27 survivors told the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) that there had been another 75 people on board their boat — a large rubber dinghy — who were lost at sea. Six more are missing from another migrant boat attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.
“According to the information gathered so far, the shipwreck occurred because the rubber dinghy was overcrowded and in a poor state,” Catania prosecutor Giovanni Salvi was quoted as saying by Italian media.
Salvi has opened an investigation into the shipwreck, news of which came just three days after the bodies of 45 migrants were discovered in the hold of a fishing boat, where they appeared to have suffocated after being locked in by traffickers.
The UN agency said Wednesday that migrants rescued from another boat, brought to safety in Porto Empedocle in Sicily, told them two of those on board their craft had died during the crossing, while four others were lost overboard.
Survivors said the boat had set off from Libya on Saturday, only to have the engine break down on the second day.
Three men from Sub-Saharan Africa fell overboard, while a Moroccan boy dived into the sea to try and reach a boat he had seen in the distance, the Fatto Quotidiano daily quoted them as saying.
All four were assumed drowned. As the boat drifted on under the hot Mediterranean sun and desperately thirsty people began to drink sea water, the next to die were two Syrians, one young and one elderly, the paper said.
The UNHCR estimated that 500 migrants and refugee seekers have died while attempting the perilous crossing from North Africa to Italy in 2014.
“Despite the huge efforts by the Italian authorities and the constant help offered by private boats, hundreds of innocent migrants and refugees continue to lose their lives at Europe’s boundaries,” it said.
“The latest tragedies show that the refugees have no other choice but to risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean to seek refuge from wars and persecution,” it added. The agency called on governments “to provide urgently legal alternatives to the dangerous journeys by sea... guaranteeing to the desperate and those in need of refuge the possibility to seek and find protection and asylum.”
According to the Italian Catholic community Sant’Egidio, “around 25,000 people in the last 15 years — including many women and children — are estimated to have died during the crossing.”
The number of migrant arrivals this year has now topped the record 63,000 set in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings, and the EU border agency Frontex has warned that calm summer seas will encourage many more to attempt the trip.
The Italian government, which has been running a huge “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea”) rescue operation, said Wednesday that around 64,000 migrants have arrived since the start of the year on 395 boats.
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