Three refugee boat tragedies in one week
More than 700 migrants are feared dead in three Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks south of Italy in recent few days as they tried desperately to reach Europe in unseaworthy smuggling boats, the UN refugee agency has said.
The shipwrecks 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.
Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for UNHCR, said an estimated 100 people are missing from a smugglers’ boat that capsized on Wednesday 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 on Thursday morning 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 eople, didn’t 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 Friday, 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 organisations and rescue authorities typically rely on survivors’ accounts to piece together what happened.
Italian police corroborated the UNHCR description of Thursday’s sinking in their own interviews with survivors, but came up with different numbers of 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 five-litre 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.
Italy’s southern islands are the main destinations for countless numbers of smuggling boats launched from the shores of Libya each week.
RESCUED: Crews tow shipwrecked migrants to safety