Plea to EU as 34 people drown off Malta

One of the 221 migrants rescued. Picture: Reuters
One of the 221 migrants rescued. Picture: Reuters
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MALTA’S prime minister said the Mediterranean Sea was at risk of becoming a “cemetery” after a second smugglers’ boat overloaded with migrants capsized as it made the perilous crossing from Africa to Europe.

At least 34 people drowned, but 221 were rescued in a joint Italian-Maltese operation, officials said. It was the second such incident in a week.

“I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done,” Malta’s premier Joseph Muscat said. He said he would join ­Italy in pressing for action at the next European Council.

“The fact is that as things stand, we are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “Until now we have encountered statements, words but little more than that.”

Yesterday helicopters ferried the injured to Lampedusa, an Italian island closer to Africa than the mainland and the destination of choice for most smugglers’ boats leaving Tunisia or Libya. It was off Lampedusa that a migrant ship from Libya capsized on 3 October with some 500 people aboard. Only 155 survived.

Friday’s capsize occurred 65 miles south-east of Lampedusa in waters where Malta has search and rescue responsibilities.

The two shipwrecks were the latest grim reminder of the risks migrants and asylum-seekers take in an effort to slip into Europe by boat. Facing unrest and persecution, many in Africa and the Middle East think the Lampedusa route to Europe, barely 70 miles away, is worth the risk.

“They do know that they are risking their lives, but it is a rational decision,” said Maurizio Albahari, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. “Because they know for a fact they will be facing death or persecution at home – whatever ­remains of their home, or ­assuming there is a home in the first place.”

What drives them is the hope of a better life in Europe, he said. “It’s either perish or go somewhere.”

In the latest case, the Italian coastguard said it received a satellite phone call from the boat that it was in distress and was able to locate it from satellite co-ordinates, said spokesman Marco Di Milla.

A Maltese aircraft was sent up and reported the boat had capsized and that “numerous” people were in the water. The aircraft dropped a life-raft, and a patrol boat soon arrived at the scene, according to the Maltese armed forces.

Late on Friday, Muscat reported 27 bodies had been recovered, three of them children. He said 150 survivors were rescued aboard a Maltese ship. An Italian patrol boat had another 56 survivors, while a fishing boat had 15, said commander Marco Maccaroni of the Italian navy. Between the Italian and Maltese ships, the total of survivors came to 221, though it wasn’t clear if the injured who were flown by helicopter to Lampedusa were included in that figure.

The incident occurred as recovery operations continued on Friday off Lampedusa for victims of the 3 October tragedy. The death toll stands at 339, including a newborn still attached to its drowned mother by it umbilical cord, Di ­Milla said.

The tragedies have prompted renewed calls for the European Union to do more to better patrol the southern Mediterranean and prevent needless deaths – and for countries like Libya to crack down on smuggling operations.

During a visit to Lampedusa last week, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso promised Italy ¤30 million (£25.4m) in EU funds to aid newly arrived migrants.

Italian officials have pledged to put the issue on the agenda of an upcoming European ­Union summit and on the EU agenda next year, when Italy and Greece hold the EU ­presidencies.