Sunday 17 December 2017

Up to 700 refugees feared dead in week of horror on Mediterranean

Rescuers help migrants to board the Italian Navy ship Vega, after the boat they were aboard sunk. The Italian navy says it saved 135 people from the boat and recovered 45 bodies. Photo: AP
Rescuers help migrants to board the Italian Navy ship Vega, after the boat they were aboard sunk. The Italian navy says it saved 135 people from the boat and recovered 45 bodies. Photo: AP
Refugees call for help after the boat they were travelling in overturned off the Libyan coast last Thursday. Photo: AP

Nick Squires

Up to 700 migrants and refugees are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean on their way to Italy in the past few days, making it the deadliest week this year for the dangerous passage from North Africa.

One woman was reportedly decapitated after a rope linking two boats together was cut by a trafficker, creating a deadly whiplash effect.

A sinking last Wednesday left 100 people dead, while 45 bodies were recovered from a second shipwreck on Friday.

In a third tragedy, another vessel, believed to be carrying 600 to 700 people, sank in the middle of the Mediterranean on Thursday, with just 100 survivors.

That would bring the combined death toll to around 700, making it the deadliest week since April last year, when a boat with an estimated 700 to 800 people locked in the hold sank after colliding with a merchant vessel sent to rescue it.

Survivors of last Thursday's disaster, who were rescued at sea and brought to ports in Sicily, told officials that it involved two boats - the first one, carrying around 500 migrants, towing a second, which was also carrying up to 700 people.

When the second vessel began to take on water and sink, the alleged captain of the first boat, a Sudanese man, cut the tow rope, causing it to whiplash, survivors said.

"We tried everything to stop the water, to bail it out of the boat," a Nigerian girl told Italian officials.

"We used our hands, plastic glasses. For two hours we fought against the water but it was useless. It began to flood the boat, and those below deck had no chance.

"Women, men, children, many children, were trapped, and drowned," she said.

The dead included around 40 children, including babies, survivors said.

The controversial accord between the EU and Turkey has all but halted the flow of refugees and migrants from the Turkish coast to Greece, with just 108 arriving on the Aegean Islands in the last week. However, 13,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since last Monday.

But the number of dead can only be estimated based on survivor testimony, which is still being collected.

"We will never know exact numbers," Médecins San Frontières (MSF) said in a Tweet after estimating that 900 had died during the week.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than 700 had drowned.

Migrants interviewed on Saturday in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo told of a large fishing boat that overturned and sank on Thursday with many women and children on board.

Initial estimates were that 400 people died, but the UN Refugee agency said yesterday that there may have been about 670 passengers on board.

According to testimony collected by EU border agency Frontex, when the motorless fishing boat capsized, 25 swam to the boat that had been towing it, while 79 to 89 others were saved by rescuers and 15 bodies were recovered.

This meant more than 550 died, the UNHCR said.

The migrants - fleeing wars, oppression and poverty - often do not know how to swim and do not have life jackets.

They pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to make the crossing from Libya to Italy, by far the most dangerous border passage for migrants in the world.

Last week's arrivals included Eritreans, Sudanese, Nigerians and many other West Africans, humanitarian groups say. Despite the surge last week, as of Friday 40,660 arrivals had been counted, 2pc fewer than the same period last year, the Interior Ministry said.

Most of the boats this week appear to have left from Sabratha, Libya, where many said smugglers had beaten them and women said they had been raped, said MSF, which has three rescue boats in the area.

The migrants are piled onto flimsy rubber boats or old fishing vessels, which can toss their occupants into the sea in a matter of seconds.

On Wednesday, about 100 are thought to have either been trapped in the hull of one boat, or to have drowned after tumbling into the sea.

On Friday, the Italian Navy ship Vega collected 45 bodies and rescued 135 from a "half-submerged" rubber boat.

It is not yet known exactly how many were on board, but the rubber boats normally carry about 300.

"Some were more shaken than others because they had lost their loved ones," Raffaele Martino, commander of the Vega, said yesterday in the southern port of Reggio Calabria, where the Vega docked with the survivors and corpses, including those of three infants.

"It's time that Europe had the courage to offer safe alternatives that allow these people to come without putting their own lives or those of their children in danger," Tommaso Fabri of MSF Italy said.

Irish Independent

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