Mediterranean migrant boat tragedy: Death toll could rise to 950
The light on the horizon was supposed to signal salvation. A Portuguese cargo ship, on its way to Libya, had been dispatched to rescue a boat full of migrants, floundering 100 miles south of Lampedusa. In the dark, it changed course to assist the hundreds on board.
But the well-intentioned rescue did not go as planned.
On seeing the light, just before midnight on Saturday, the migrants surged to one side of the 66ft fishing vessel. Unbalanced, it capsized. And, in what is thought to be the worst migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean, 700 lives were lost.
Some reports put the toll even higher. Italy’s Ansa news agency quoted one survivor as saying there were 950 on board the boat when it sank.
“They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water,” said Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta – a country that has been the first port of call for many of the 35,000 migrants who have arrived in southern Europe this year. “Children, men, and women have died.”
The doomed vessel began its voyage in Egypt but picked up its passengers from Zuara on the north-west Libyan coast, according to reports. An injured survivor from Bangladesh who was flown by helicopter to the Sicilian town of Catania told police: “There were 40 to 50 children and around 200 women [on board]. When we sailed the traffickers locked the hatches to prevent people getting out.”
Twenty eight people were rescued in the incident, which happened inside Libyan waters. On Sunday night the search operation was continuing, involving 17 Italian navy and coastguard vessels, backed by the country’s air force and a Maltese patrol boat. With sea temperatures of 17C (62F), migrants could stay alive in the water for some time, said the coastguard.
The tragedy marked a grim new record for deaths at sea, with this year’s arrivals set to dwarf the figures from 2014. It spurred calls for the EU to restart comprehensive search-and-rescue operations, having ended Operation Mare Nostrum in October – a rescue mission that saved up to 100,000 lives last year. In its place the EU runs a smaller border patrol service, Operation Triton. Last week Medecins Sans Frontières announced that, given the lack of search-and-rescue operations organised by the EU, they were taking matters into their own hands and launching their own ship.
“They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war,” said Pope Francis on Sunday, in a departure from his expected speech. “They were looking for a better life.”
He told tens of thousands of people in St Peter’s Square: “I make a heartfelt appeal to the international community to react decisively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not repeated.” European leaders expressed their support for an emergency summit, which could be held at the end of the week. EU foreign ministers were already due to gather in Luxembourg on Monday.
“Stopping this needless suffering is a huge international challenge which demands a comprehensive, coordinated response,” said Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary. “We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys. He added that Britain “can make an important contribution to addressing the factors driving migration” through aid programmes.
In Spain, Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, agreed that action must be taken. “Today, and this is the umpteenth time, we hear of yet another human tragedy in the Mediterranean, off the Libyan coast,” he said, speaking at a political rally. “It’s a daily drama. Words are not enough.”
Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, described the people smuggling behind the migrant crisis as a “scourge” that Europe had to address. His country bore the brunt of the migrant surge, funding Mare Nostrum to the tune of €9 million (£6.5 million) a month, and housing thousands of migrants at transition centres on Sicily and Lampedusa, and in Calabria on the mainland. “We are asking not to be left alone,” he said.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, used the disaster to renew calls for Italy to institute a “naval blockade” against Libya. Lorenzo Guerini, the deputy secretary of Mr Renzi’s Democratic Party, responded that it was “nauseating” for Right-wing politicians, whom he described as “jackals”, to make political capital out of the tragedy.