Why the Mediter­ranean death toll is surg­ing


As the boats get ever more rick­ety, the num­bers crammed on to them in­crease and the chances of catas­tro­phe get higher.

It is not just the scal­ing back of Italy’s naval search and res­cue op­er­a­tion that has led to this year’s surge in the num­ber of peo­ple drown­ing in the Mediter­ranean as they seek to reach Europe from North Africa.

At least 1,750 asy­lum seek­ers or mi­grants have per­ished in the wa­ters be­tween Libya and Italy since the turn of the year, 30 times the to­tal reg­is­tered in the same pe­riod of 2014.

But the dramatically higher death toll does not re­flect more peo­ple risk­ing their lives to get to Europe: the num­bers ar­riv­ing in Italy are broadly flat — 22,000 up to April 20, com­pared with 26,600 for Jan­uary-April 2014, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Migration.

“The boats are get­ting more clapped out and more packed at the same time,” IOM spokesman Flavio di Gi­a­como told AFP. “Whether it is wooden fish­ing boats or rub­ber dinghies, the one thing they have in com­mon is that they are al­ways very, very old.”

“Af­ter a few hours at sea, they start to take on wa­ter. That is why it is get­ting harder and harder to res­cue them.”

When an Ital­ian coast­guard ves­sel dis­em­barked at Au­gusta in Si­cily last week with 600 mi­grants res­cued from five dif­fer­ent boats over the course of two days, the aid work­ers at the scene all acted as it had been a to­tally rou­tine op­er­a­tion.

But in re­al­ity each of the five in­ci­dents in­volved boats that came per­ilously close to sink­ing, ac­cord­ing to the mi­grants on board.

“The wa­ter started com­ing in. We called for help at 1 p.m. and then we waited, and waited,” re­counted Ma­lik Tourey, a Nige­rian who was on board one of the ves­sels.

“We had to bail out the boat, ev­ery­one to­gether, ev­ery­one shiv­er­ing, women cry­ing. It wasn’t un­til 3 a.m. the fol­low­ing day that the coast­guard ar­rived.”

30cm Wave Enough

Ital­ian navy cap­tain Michele Mal­tese, a spokesman for the coast­guard based at Cata­nia on Si­cily’s eastern coast, said the boats used by peo­ple smug­glers have al­ways been barely sea­wor­thy.

“What is hap­pen­ing now is they are hav­ing more and more peo­ple packed onto them,” he told AFP.

“On a fish­ing boat de­signed for a crew of 10, the traf­fick­ers find a way to squeeze be­tween 400 and 500 on board. They be­come so un­sta­ble that a 30-cen­time­ter (1-foot) high wave is enough to re­sult in them tak­ing on wa­ter,” he said.

“Ev­ery boat that puts to sea is do­ing so at a very high risk (of sink­ing).”

The traf­fick­ers are so cyn­i­cal they some­times charge their pas­sen­gers ex­tra for a life jacket. Maa­madou Dialo, who ar­rived ear­lier this month, was among those who stumped up, but soon dis­cov­ered it was far from sound in­vest­ment. “It must have been made in China — af­ter five min­utes in the wa­ter you would have sunk!”

Mal­tese said Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties tried to en­sure traf­fick­ers’ boats were con­fis­cated and de­stroyed in Ital­ian ports. But dif­fi­cult sea con­di­tions meant that was not al­ways pos­si­ble in the heat of a res­cue op­er­a­tion and many are left to drift.

“Hu­man safety is our pri­or­ity,” the coast­guard said.

Twice this year traf­fick­ers have threat­ened Ital­ian coast­guards with weapons in or­der to re­cover and re­use boats from which the hu­man cargo has been taken to safety.

Fron­tex, the Euro­pean bor­der agency, in­ter­preted those in­ci­dents as a sign that the traf­fick­ers are run­ning short of ves­sels. Oth­ers say it sim­ply re­flects their be­lief that they can pretty do what they like in the wa­ters off law­less Libya.

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