Tripoli, April 1 At least 277 migrants are feared dead after their small boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in stormy weather over the last weekend in March. The exact number of casualties may never be known.
The capsized wooden fishing vessel had a capacity of 50 but was packed with around 350 migrants. It is believed to have been heading for Italy when the tragedy occurred. Egyptian authorities have confirmed that at least 10 Egyptians are among the dead, MENA reports from Egypt. Conflicting reports suggest that between 25 and 36 people have been rescued. Many were picked up ‘swimming amongst corpses’. More than 250 people looking for economic betterment in Europe, have just ‘vanished into the Mediterranean’, one UN official said.
The Libyan Navy leading the Search and Rescue operations is believed to have called off their SAR ops four days after the incident. It is believed that the boat left the northern Mediterranean coast of Libya and sank about 30 miles north of the coastal town of Maleta and about 50 miles west of Tripoli. The boat carried migrants from Africa and the Middle East, some of them Syrian Kurds. Libyan authorities say that the boat was probably leaking, hugely overloaded and far from seaworthy.
The Guardian in UK quotes Italian Charity Caritas saying that the Mediterranean is a "cemetery without tombstones". More than 13000 economic refugees have died in the last decade trying to reach Italy in overcrowded and leaking boats. Oliviero Forti from Caritas says, "We hear the daily reports from fishermen who are finding more and more bodies caught up in their nets."
Actual figures may be much higher. The BBC says that the UN estimates that more than 67,000 people were attempted to be smuggled into Europe last year, and at least 1,700 are known to have died, but “that figure could be far higher, because no one really knows exactly how many people the smugglers cram onto their vessels”
Coincidentally, another tragedy was averted last weekend as yet another vessel packed with 350 migrants was towed back to Tripoli after the boat’s main engines broke down. "The seas were rough and they were heading for a horrible fate," said Francesco Barraco, the Italian tug’s Captain who rescued them. These refugees were lucky, as they happened to be near an oil platform, which alerted the tug. The boat had such a low freeboard that the towing operation took 14 hours to cover the short distance to port, Barraco fearing that a faster speed would cause the boat to sink.
The UN expects that as the global economic crisis worsens, such crossings will only increase. Human smugglers charge 1200 US dollars per head for the dangerous crossing, but that does not seem to deter refugees from trying to flee African and Asian countries. The UN confirmed that on the rescued boat were 66 Bangladeshis, 5 Indians, 15 Syrians and 2 Pakistanis; others included Egyptians, Somalis, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Tunisians, Eritreans, Algerians and Moroccans. The Guardian reports that the Italian island of Lampedusa received 37,000 migrants last year, and rioting broke out in packed refugee camp conditions at least once.
Italy and Libya have planned joint patrols later this year to stop migrant vessels. Observers are sceptical that this plan would succeed, given that smugglers just change their routes instead of giving up this lucrative but inhuman trade. To make matters worse, as Ron Redmond, chief spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says, this is the beginning of the smuggling season in the Mediterranean.