700 mi­grants feared dead af­ter the ‘dead­li­est’ Mediter­ranean ship­wreck

The China Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­GUS MACKIN­NON

As many as 700 mi­grants were feared drowned Sun­day af­ter their packed boat cap­sized off Libya in what was de­scribed as the dead­li­est such dis­as­ter to date in the Mediter­ranean.

The U.N. refugee agency ( UNHCR) and Italy’s coast­guard said only 28 peo­ple had sur­vived the wreck. Their tes­ti­monies sug­gested there had been about 700 peo­ple on board the 20-me­ter (70-foot) fish­ing boat, of­fi­cials said.

“It seems we are look­ing at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediter­ranean,” UNHCR spokes­woman Car­lotta Sami said.

The Euro­pean Union an­nounced an emer­gency meet­ing of for­eign and in­te­rior min­is­ters to dis­cuss what Amnesty In­ter­na­tional blasted as an avoid­able “man-made tragedy.”

Coastal au­thor­i­ties in Italy and Malta picked up a dis­tress sig­nal from the stricken ves­sel around mid­night (2200 GMT) on Satur­day, when it was about 126 kilo­me­ters off the Libyan coast and 177 kilo­me­ters south of the Ital­ian is­land of Lampe­dusa.

The Ital­ian coast­guard in­structed a nearby mer­chant ship to go to the scene and it was when the Por­tuguese-reg­is­tered King Ja­cob ar­rived at the scene that the fish­ing boat cap­sized, most likely as a re­sult of the ter­ri­fied pas­sen­gers stam­ped­ing to one side in their des­per­a­tion to get off, the UNHCR’s Sami said.

A to­tal of 17 boats scoured the area for sur­vivors on Sun­day but only 24 bod­ies had been re­cov­ered so far, the coast­guard said.

The

Worst Tragedy Yet

dis­as­ter was

the

lat­est in a grow­ing cat­a­log of mass drown­ings of mi­grants at­tempt­ing to reach Europe on over­crowded, un­sea­wor­thy boats run by peo­ple smug­glers who are able to op­er­ate out of Libya with im­punity be­cause of the chaos en­gulf­ing the North African state.

The most se­ri­ous in­ci­dent prior to Sun­day oc­curred off Malta in Septem­ber 2014. An es­ti­mated 500 mi­grants drowned in a ship­wreck caused by traf­fick­ers de­lib­er­ately ram­ming the boat in an at­tempt to force the peo­ple on board onto an­other, smaller ves­sel.

In Oc­to­ber 2013, more than 360 Africans per­ished when the tiny fish­ing boat they were crammed onto caught fire within sight of the coast of Lampe­dusa.

That hor­rific tragedy was de­scribed at the time as a wake-up call to the world but 18 months later there is no sign of a let-up in the num­bers at­tempt­ing the per­ilous cross­ing in search of a bet­ter life in Europe.

The lat­est dis­as­ter comes af­ter a week in which two other mi­grant ship­wrecks left an es­ti­mated 450 peo­ple dead.

If the worst fears about Sun­day’s tragedy are con­firmed, it will take the death toll since the start of 2015 to more than 1,600.

More than 11,000 other would-be im­mi­grants have been res­cued since the mid­dle of last week and cur­rent trends sug­gest last year’s to­tal of 170,000 mi­grants land­ing in Italy is likely to be at least match in 2015.

Avoid­able Deaths?

Pope Fran­cis on Sun­day led calls for Euro­pean Union lead­ers to act to stem the loss of life.

“Th­ese are men and women like us, broth­ers seek­ing a bet­ter life,” he said in his weekly ad­dress to the Ro­man Catholic faith­ful in St. Peter’s square, urg­ing lead­ers to “act de­ci­sively and quickly to stop th­ese tragedies from re­cur­ring.”

Amnesty’s John Dal­huisen called Sun­day’s ac­ci­dent a “man­made tragedy of ap­palling pro­por­tions.”

“Th­ese lat­est deaths at sea come as a shock, but not a sur­prise.”

Amnesty is among NGOs call­ing for the restora­tion of an Ital­ian navy search-and-res­cue op­er­a­tion known as Mare Nostrum which was suspended at the end of last year.

Italy scaled back the mission af­ter fail­ing to per­suade its Euro­pean part­ners to help meet its op­er­at­ing costs of nine mil­lion eu­ros (NT$301.18 mil­lion; US$9.7 mil­lion) a month amid di­vi­sions over whether the mission was un­in­ten­tion­ally en­cour­ag­ing mi­grants to at­tempt the cross­ing.

Mare Nostrum has been par­tially re­placed by a much smaller EU-run op­er­a­tion called Tri­ton which has a frac­tion of the as­sets and spe­cial­ist man­power pre­vi­ously de­ployed by Italy.

Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi was ex­pected to make a state­ment on the tragedy later Sun­day fol­low­ing an emer­gency meet­ing with min­is­ters in­volved in man­ag­ing the mi­grant cri­sis.

The mi­grants seek­ing to reach Europe with the help of peo­ple smug­glers are gen­er­ally flee­ing con­flict or per­se­cu­tion in places such as Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria, or poverty and hunger in Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa and South Asia.

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