Hundreds feared dead as migrant boat sinks

Migrants aboard an Italian navy vessel as it cruises towards the port of Messina. Picture: AP
Migrants aboard an Italian navy vessel as it cruises towards the port of Messina. Picture: AP
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A CROWDED fishing boat said to have been carrying 700 migrants has capsized north of Libya, with only a few dozen people being rescued.

There are fears it could become the Mediterranean’s deadliest known migrant sea disaster.

The tragedy prompted more dismay among exasperated Italian officials, refugee aid agencies and Pope Francis, all of whom are demanding more European or international action to stop the deadly tide of humanity.

Migrants have aimed for Europe’s shores for many years, fleeing war, persecution and conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

But the turmoil and warfare in Libya has made it easier for smugglers to take to the sea.

Rescuers yesterday had the grim task of “checking who is alive and who is dead” among the bodies floating on the surface, said Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat, whose tiny Mediterranean island nation joined the rescue operations. He called it the “biggest human tragedy of the last few years.”

The 66ft vessel may have overturned because migrants rushed to one side of the craft late on Saturday night when they saw an approaching Portuguese-flagged container ship, the King Jacob, which the Italian coast guard had dispatched to help them.

The coast guard said at least 28 survivors had been rescued by yesterday morning.

Mr Muscat put the number of survivors at 50, while International Organisation for Migration spokesman Joel Millman said 49 had survived.

“Since the waters of the Mediterranean Sea are not too cold at the moment, the authorities hope to find more survivors,” Mr Millman said.

The container ship received the coast guard’s request to help the migrants at 11pm local time – 9pm GMT – on Saturday “when an overloaded fishing boat was spotted close by the King Jacob’s port side”, the ship’s owner said.

The crew “immediately deployed rescue boats, gangway, nets and life rings. Twenty-two people were pulled to safety” .

Those rescued were transferred to Italian coast guard vessels.

A United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman tweeted that, according to one survivor, the boat had set out with 700 migrants aboard.

Italian premier Matteo Renzi summoned his top ministers to a strategy session in Rome last night, saying the numbers of dead were still provisional but “are destined to rise”. He added: “How can it be that we daily are witnessing a tragedy?”

The smugglers are capitalising on the migrants’ desperation and taking advantage of chaos and violence in Libya, where rival militias, tribal factions and other political forces have destabilised the country since the bloody end of Muammar Gaddafi’s long dictatorship in 2011.

In Italy’s parliament, the leaders of the foreign affairs and defence commissions pushed for the European Union and the UN to prepare a naval blockade of Libya’s coast to stop the human trafficking. Without a military blockade, “the traffickers will continue to operate and make money and the wretched will continue to die,” Pier Fernando Casini, the Senate foreign affairs commission president, said.

The Pope lent his moral authority to the political calls for action, urging “the international community to act decisively and promptly, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again”.

“Europe can do more, and Europe must do more,” Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, said. “It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility and how little money we provide for rescue missions.”

French president Francois Hollande said Europe must mobilise “more ships, more overflights by aircraft”.

The EU’s foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, added migration as a last-minute emergency issue to an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg today.

IN NUMBERS:

10,000 Migrants have been rescued in the past week

31,500 Migrants have arrived from North Africa so far this year

900 Migrants died attempting the crossing from 1 January to 15 April this year

218,000 Migrants estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean in 2014

3,500 Migrants died attempting the crossing last year

Source: UNHCR