More than 700 migrants are feared to have died in three Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks off southern Italy in the last few days as they tried to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats, according to the UN refugee agency.
The shipwrecks that took place over three consecutive days appear to account for the largest loss of life reported in the Mediterranean since April 2015, when a single ship sank with an estimated 800 people trapped inside.
Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said on Sunday that an estimated 100 people were missing from a smuggler’s boat that capsized on Wednesday. The Italian navy took horrific pictures of that capsizing as it attempted to rescue survivors.
Sami said about 550 others were missing from a smuggling boat that capsized on Thursday morning after leaving the western Libyan port of Sabratha a day earlier.
According to survivors, she said that that boat, which had been carrying about 670 people, did not have an engine and was being towed by another packed smuggling boat before it capsized. About 25 people from the capsized boat managed to reach the first boat while 79 others were rescued by international patrol boats. Fifteen bodies were recovered.
Italian police said survivors identified the commander of the boat with the working engine as a 28-year-old Sudanese man, who has been arrested.
In a third shipwreck, on Friday, Sami said 135 people were rescued, 45 bodies were recovered and an unknown number of migrants were still missing.
Because the bodies went missing in the open sea, it is impossible to verify the number who died. Humanitarian organisations and rescue authorities typically rely on survivors’ accounts to piece together what happened.
Italian police corroborated the UNHCR description of Thursday’s sinking in their own interviews with survivors, but came up with a different number for the missing.
They say, according to survivors, that the boat being towed was carrying about 500 migrants when it starting taking water after about eight hours at sea. Efforts to bail out the water with a line of migrants passing a few 5-litre cans were insufficient and the boat was completely under water after an hour and a half, police said.
At that point, the commander of the first smuggling boat doing the towing ordered the tow rope to be cut.
The migrants on the top deck of the sinking boat jumped into the sea, while those below deck, estimated at 300, sank with the ship, police said. Of those who jumped into the water, just 90 were rescued.
Survivors were taken to the Italian ports of Taranto on the mainland and Pozzallo on the island of Sicily. Sami said the UN agency was trying to gather information with sensitivity considering that most of the new arrivals were either shipwreck survivors or traumatised by what they had seen.
Italy’s southern islands are the main destination for countless numbers of smuggling boats launched from Libya each week packed with people seeking jobs and safety in Europe. Hundreds of migrants drown each year attempting the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.
Warmer waters and calmer weather of late have only increased the migrants’ attempts to reach Europe. Last week, over 4,000 migrants were rescued at sea in a single day by an Italian-led naval operation.