18th Mar 2018

More than 300 dead in latest migrant tragedy

  • Hundreds are feared dead in the latest boating tragedy off the coast of Italy (Photo: Frontex)

Calls are being made for the EU to step up its sea operations after some 330 people are feared dead after trying to make their way from Libya to Italy.

The UN refugee agency (UNCHR) on Wednesday (11 February) said hundreds are thought to have perished over the weekend after embarking from Libya towards the Italian coast on four dinghies.

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"Saving lives should be our top priority. Europe cannot afford to do too little too late,” said UNHCR Europe bureau director Vincent Cochetel in a statement.

Around 29 had perished earlier this week from hypothermia but the latest incident came to light after survivors said one of the dinghies carrying 100 people had disappeared.

Only two out of about 100 passengers survived on a second dinghy and seven out of about 100 people on a third one.

The death toll approaches the 366 migrants who drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013.

That disaster sparked an outcry with EU leaders at the time vowing to prevent another similar tragedy from happening.

Italy then launched its naval search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum, credited with saving over 100,000 people.

But Mare Nostrum was phased out last November and the much smaller surveillance Triton operation, led by the EU’s border agency, Frontex, took over.

Unlike Mare Nostrum, Triton is not mandated for search and rescue and is confined to operate within 30 nautical miles off the Italian shore.

“It’s a simple equation – as the number of people taking this perilous sea route goes up and the resources put into search and rescue go down, more people will die,” said Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen.

Last year, 218,000 people, including migrants and refugees, crossed the Mediterranean by irregular routes.

The UNCHR says the trend is expected to continue in 2015 as smugglers along the north African coast continue to exploit those fleeing war, persecution, and poverty.

One survivor said they were forced at gunpoint to board the four-vessel flotilla of dinghies in bad weather after having been locked up in a warehouse in the outskirts of Libya’s capital Tripoli.

"We know what fate we are going towards and the probability of dying ... But it is a sacrifice we consciously make to have a future," another told the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM), reports Reuters.

Those rescued on Wednesday say they had spent days at open sea without food or water.

“What’s happening now is worse than a tragedy – it is a crime – one as bad as any I have seen in fifty years of service,” said IOM director general William Lacy Swing.

Don’t point fingers

The European Commission on Wednesday said it was unable to comment on the specifics of the latest toll due to a lack of details.

“We all know that more needs to be done,” said spokesperson Natasha Bertaud.

“Pointing fingers is not going to get us anyway, tackling this common challenge has to be a joint effort of the commission and the member states working together,” she added.

With a budget of €90 million a year, Bertaud said Frontex is not adequately funded to face the challenge.

“We need to pull more resources among the member states,” she said.

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