700 Feared Dead In Mediterranean Migrant Boat Sinking, Making It Possibly The Deadliest Disaster Of Its Kind

As many as 700 people are thought to have drowned after a boat sank just outside Libyan waters Sunday, in what could be the worst disaster yet to befall a Europe-bound migrant vessel. According to the Italian coastguard, the boat, which was carrying “between 500 and 700 migrants,” capsized at midnight local time about 60 miles off the Libyan coast and 120 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. A major rescue mission was underway Sunday morning. The tragedy struck just a day after Pope Francis called for European Union action on Italy’s growing migration crisis.

The Guardian reports that coastguards have so far retrieved 49 survivors and around 20 bodies, while the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that some 700 people remain in the water. In a tragically ironic twist, the fatal accident apparently occurred after the fishing vessel’s desperate passengers spotted a merchant ship passing in the distance and struggled to attract its attention, capsizing their own boat in the process. “They wanted to be rescued,” UNHCR spokeswoman Barbara Molinario told The Guardian. “They saw another ship. They were trying to make themselves known to it.”

Prior to Sunday’s disaster, some 450 people had already been presumed drowned in two similar incidents earlier in the week, prompting Pope Francis’ comments Saturday on the ongoing humanitarian emergency. If the estimated death toll of Sunday’s sinking is correct, at least 1500 migrants so far this year have died in the attempt to reach Europe. That figure, The Guardian points out, is 30 times greater than last year’s equivalent number — which itself set a record at the time.

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Sunday morning, 17 boats — a mix of coast guard, police, and navy vessels — plied the waters of the Mediterranean Sea searching for survivors. According to The New York Times, these Italian and Maltese crews were joined by other vessels belonging to Triton, a European rescue program, as well as merchant ships. Although currently the operation is focused on search and rescue, a coastguard spokesperson said that “in time it will be a search [for bodies] only.” Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Italy, said:

It is really too early to know, but if the number was confirmed, this would be the deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean. … The migrant boats are increasingly overloaded, and the journeys become even more dangerous, if at all possible.

The fishing vessel that went down Sunday, purported to be carrying 700 passengers, was only around 65 feet long. “If there really were 700 dead this time,” Di Giacomo said, “we would hit a horrendous record.” BBC News reports that some 10,000 migrants have been rescued from stricken boats by the Italian coastguard in the last week alone. Lampedusa, the southern-most point of Italy, is the metaphorical wall against which this wave of immigration breaks. The island’s detention center currently holds around 1,000 migrants — against a local population of only 5,000.

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Pope Francis quickly expressed his “deepest sorrow” over this latest disaster. “These are men and women like us who seek a better life,” he said. “Hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of wars. They were looking for happiness.” In his remarks Saturday, Francis called for a greater effort to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis. “It is evident that the proportions of the phenomenon demand much greater involvement,” he said. “We must not tire in our attempts to solicit a more extensive response at the European and international level.”

Last year, the EU drastically reduced its rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea after several EU members complained that they could not afford the expansive Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. Triton is Mare Nostrum’s replacement, a much less ambitious border control system that costs a third of what was spent on its predecessor. Initiated in 2013, Mare Nostrum facilitated the rescue of 113,000 people a year, and helped to apprehend 500 human traffickers. While Mare Nostrum covered much of the Mediterranean Sea, Triton is limited to Italian and Maltese waters.

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“The scale of what is happening in the Mediterranean is not an accident,” Justin Forsyth of Save the Children said Sunday, “it is a direct result of our policy.” Forsyth urged the EU to rethink this downsizing. Anders Lustgarten, too, has criticized the EU’s operation. Writing in The Guardian, Lustgarten argues that the EU’s current approach is designed to allow migrant deaths. “The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming,” he writes, citing James Brokenshire, an English minister, who justified pulling the plug on Mare Nostrum by claiming that the program encouraged migration.

But last week the European Commission's migration spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told the BBC, “We don't have a silver bullet that will make it [the situation] go away and no amount of finger pointing will change that.” Italy's Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has reportedly travelled back to Rome and called a special cabinet meeting for Sunday afternoon in the wake of the disaster.

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