At Least 300 Migrants Dead or Missing Off Lampedusa

At least 300 migrants dead or missing in Mediterranean crossing

 

Jane Onyanga-Omara | USA TODAY | February 11, 2015

 

Around 300 migrants are thought to have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday.

 

The incident happened off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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Survivors coming ashore Wednesday reported that four rubber boats attempted to make the journey from Libya to Europe in frigid temperatures.

 

Carlotta Sami, the UNHCR's spokeswoman in Italy, said at least 203 people had been "swallowed up by the waves," the youngest age 12. However, the agency said that if all four boats are confirmed missing the death toll may surpass 300.

 

The International Organization for Migration, a watchdog, said people smugglers based in Libya were ultimately responsible for the deaths.

 

"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. "These smuggling networks act with virtual impunity and hundreds are dying. The world must act."

 

The IOM said the boats were carrying nationals from Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

 

At least 29 people died from hypothermia Monday off Lampedusa — which is about 70 miles from Tunisia — in what the UNHCR said was the first major maritime loss of life this year. They, too, were traveling from north Africa to Italy.

 

The agency called on the European Union to beef up search-and-rescue capacity in the Mediterranean following Monday's deaths. The EU took over Mediterranean patrols after Italy phased out its so-called Mare Nostrum ("Our Sea") operation, launched after 360 migrants died in 2013.

 

'While we applaud all involved in the rescue effort — which took place in high seas and poor weather conditions and resulted in 106 lives being saved — this is an example of why it was felt important in October 2013, following tragedies that occurred then, to underline the need for a much more effective and improved rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to cope with the scale of the problem," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said, speaking on Tuesday.

 

Edwards said a significantly higher number of migrants tried to cross the sea on smugglers' boats in the first few weeks of 2015, compared with the same period last year.

 

The EU's Triton mission patrol operates only a few miles off Italy's coast, whereas Mare Nostrum patrols took Italian rescue ships up close to Libya's coast, where most of the smuggling operations originate.

 

"The Triton operation doesn't have as its principal mandate saving human lives, and thus cannot be the response that is urgently needed," Laurens Jolles, the head of the U.N. agency for southern Europe, said in a statement.

 

More than 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean through irregular routes last year and about 3,500 people died trying, the UNHCR said.

 

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard; Associated Press

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