October 04, 2013
Italy has declared a national day of mourning after a boat packed with African migrants caught fire and sank off the island of Lampedusa, killing at least 130 people.
The boat had set sail from Libya, a route thousands of migrants take each year to try and reach the European Union.
Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano says the disaster occurred when the boat’s motor stopped working and the vessel began to take on water.
He says people on board burned a sheet to attract the attention of rescuers, starting a fire on board.
“Once the fire started, there was a concern about the boat sinking and everyone moved to one side, causing the boat to go down,” he told a news conference.
The 20-metre vessel, believed to be carrying around 500 people, sank no more than one kilometre from shore.
Scores of people have been rescued and brought to shore, but so too have many bodies.
Authorities have confirmed the death of at least 93 people, and coast guard divers have counted 40 bodies inside the sunken vessel.
Two pregnant women are reported to be among the victims, as well as three children, while hundreds more remain missing.
Laurens Jolles, a spokesman for the United Nations Refugee Agency in Rome, says a rescue operation is continuing.
“There seems to have been about 500 people onboard which is a huge, huge number, also compared to the last few years,” Mr Jolles said.
“I think at the end of the day we might end up with hundreds of persons dead. Only 151 had been saved up to now of the total number of 500.
“They seem to be all Eritreans, and as I said it’s ongoing.”
Number of migrant vessels increasing
The island of Lampedusa is closer to Africa than it is to the Italian mainland and each year thousands of migrants from Libya and other parts of north Africa try to reach its shores.
But the crossing, often made in overcrowded boats, is dangerous.
Last year, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing on the crossing from Tunisia to Italy, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Italy has pressed the European Union for more help to fight the crisis, which it says concerns the whole bloc.
“This is not an Italian drama, this is a European drama,” Mr Alfano said.
This is not an Italian drama, this is a European drama.Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano
“Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy.”
Italian president Giorgio Napolitano has also called for action by the European Union to stem “a succession of massacres of innocent people”.
Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Judith Sunderland agrees the European Union needs to do more to help migrant vessels in distress in the Mediterranean.
“In 2012 the numbers were far, far lower: only between 10 and 15,000 people crossed the Mediterranean,” she said.
“Whereas this year it’s anywhere between 25 and 30,000, in fact if not over 30,000 who have actually reached Italy and Malta by sea.”
Syrians fleeing civil war have added to the numbers.
Pope Francis, who visited the island in July on his first papal trip outside Rome, says he feels “great pain” for the “many victims of the latest tragic shipwreck today off Lampedusa”.
“The word that comes to mind is ‘shame’,” he said in unscripted remarks after a speech in the Vatican.
“Let us unite our strengths so that such tragedies never happen again.”
The stream of migrants is a humanitarian and political problem for the Italian government.
Migrants who arrive in Italy are allowed to apply for asylum. Many are ordered to leave the country but slip away to become illegal immigrants in Italy or elsewhere in the European Union.