The Swedish coast guard on Wednesday found 50 bodies in the hold of a migrants’ boat during a rescue operation off the Libyan coast, according to Italian authorities, the latest victims in what has become the deadliest migrant route in the world.
A spokesman for the Italian coast guard said the Swedish ship Poseidon, which was operating in the area as part of the European Union border agency Frontex, rescued 439 people on the same boat. The cause of the deaths in the hold wasn’t known.
On Wednesday, the Italian coast guard had received several distress calls from rubber dinghies, wooden fishing boats and other vessels carrying hundreds of migrants toward Italy from Libya.
The Italian coast guard rescue boat Fiorillo found another dead body on a dinghy and rescued 112 migrants in another operation, the spokesman said.
Europe is grappling with one of the biggest waves of migration since World War II. Some 293,000 people fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have arrived so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, one-third more than last year’s total arrivals.
The number entering the EU hit a monthly record of 107,500 last month, according to Frontex, more than triple the number in July 2014.
The fates of those crossing the Mediterranean can be determined by a two-tier pricing system boat operators charge in which those with financial means are assigned safer seats on deck, migrants said. Two weeks ago, more than 40 migrants locked in the hull of a wooden boat died in a pool of “water, fuel and human excrement,” according to the Italian navy, while those on the upper deck survived.
The latest deaths add to a total of 2,267 victims on the route from North Africa to Italy and Malta since the beginning of the year, according to the IOM.
In the same period, 83 migrants lost their lives in their attempt to reach Greece from Turkey by sea and another 23 while they were trying to reach mainland Spain or the Canary Islands from Western Africa, the IOM said.
The number of migrants deaths at sea so far this year has risen 14% from the same period last year. The IOM expressed concern that “as summer turns to autumn and then winter, additional deaths at sea could well surpass 2,000.”
Italy’s coast guard said it had coordinated 10 operations Wednesday that rescued almost 3,000 people.
Rescuers save 3,000 migrants in Mediterranean, 55 dead
Rescuers saved about 3,000 migrants but found more than 50 dead on boats near the coast of Libya on Wednesday, the Italian coast guard said.
Tens of thousands of people, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, have put to sea this year in the hope of reaching Europe, often dangerously packed into small vessels that were never designed to cross the Mediterranean.
Rescuers on the Swedish ship Poseidon, mobilised under the European Union's rescue mission Triton, found 51 corpses in the hold of one boat which was also carrying 439 survivors.
Three women were found dead on a rubber boat carrying a further 120 people. One person rescued along with more than 100 others on another boat died shortly afterwards.
The coast guard did not say what caused the deaths, which add to a toll already thought to have exceeded 2,300 so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
The influx of migrants, many of whom are fleeing conflict and poverty, has confronted Europe with its worse refugee crisis since World War Two, stirring social and political tensions.
A spokeswoman for the Italian coast guard said earlier on Wednesday that the boat carrying the migrant who died shortly after the rescue had already partially deflated by the time the emergency services arrived.
The coast guard in Rome coordinated a total of 10 rescue operations Wednesday, responding to emergency calls which the spokeswoman said all came from boats in difficulty in an area around 30 miles (50 km) from the Libyan coast.
Vessels from the Italian coast guard and navy, the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station, humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders, and the Irish navy all carried out rescues.
The coast guard said a merchant ship which had gone to the rescue of 225 people was heading for the Greek island of Crete, where the survivors would disembark.