The bodies of 30 migrants have been discovered in the hold of a packed boat heading for Italy, part of a surge of thousands of Africans and Syrians desperately sailing from Libya to seek a new life in Europe.
The migrants, mostly sub-Saharans, who reportedly suffocated in the overcrowded hold, were found when the vessel crowded with 600 passengers was intercepted on Sunday by an Italian navy vessel – part of an effort by the Italian navy to pick up migrants who risk their lives at sea.
“It is the first time I see so many people in such small space,” said Stefano Frumento, the captain of the navy ship which intercepted the boat. To find space on the boat, he added, migrants were perched on the cabin roof, which was threatening to collapse on other migrants sheltering underneath.
The death toll was the highest at sea since the drowning of 366 migrants last October prompted the navy patrols, and it came as the navy, along with merchant ships, picked up 5,000 migrants at sea over the weekend.
That brought the number of migrants brought to Italy this year to 65,000, beating the record 61,000 who made the crossing at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011. As good weather sets in, Italian government experts predicted 100,000 could travel this year.
On Monday, after migrants were taken off the fishing boat containing the 30 corpses, the boat was being towed to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo.
“This is the umpteenth immigration tragedy,” said Luigi Ammatuna, the mayor of the town. “We don’t even know where to put the 30 corpses. We only have two refrigerated rooms and they are occupied,” he said.
The UN has estimated that a total of 750 Mediterranean-crossing migrants died last year and 200 had already perished before this weekend’s tragedy. On Monday, another navy vessel unloaded the decomposing corpse of a migrant it had discovered floating at sea. Another vessel was reportedly carrying a migrant suffering from a suspected case of smallpox.
The wave of migrants this year has been caused by the fleeing from civil war of Syrians who travel through Egypt to pick up boats in Libya, as well as by the decision by Sudan to kick out Eritreans who had fled their country’s tough military service. Eritreans who might have once taken low-paying jobs in Libya are now paying $1,000 to traffickers to find a boat as the country descends into violent anarchy following the ousting of Colonel Muammar al-Gadaffi.
Navy vessels loaded with the latest wave of migrants picked up over the weekend were heading to Sicilian ports yesterday, where school gyms, former military housing and even a psychiatric home have already been turned into makeshift dormitories for the migrants, many of whom head north to try to enter countries such as Germany and Sweden to claim asylum.