October 12, 2013
Dozens of asylum seekers, including children, died when a boat carrying about 250 people sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, just over a week after a similar tragedy killed more than 300.
Malta PM Joseph Muscat said at least 27 migrants were dead after the heavily loaded boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, about 100 kilometres south of Lampedusa and 110km from Malta.
Italian news agency Ansa said about 50 bodies, including about 10 children, had been pulled from the sea.
“Operations to recover the bodies are ongoing,” Mr Muscat said.
About 150 survivors have already been picked up by a Maltese ship, the prime minister said.
The Italian navy has rescued around 50 survivors, and more rescue boats and helicopters have been sent to the site.
The Maltese navy swiftly dispatched rescue ships and helicopters and diverted commercial vessels to the area.
Italy sent two naval vessels and helicopters carrying inflatable life rafts.
“The operation is in progress. The navigational conditions are difficult, with strong wind,” a Maltese navy spokesman said.
An Italian helicopter carrying about 10 surviving children landed on Lampedusa, where hundreds of asylum seekers are already seeking refuge in a seriously overcrowded reception centre.
European Union commissioner for home affairs Cecilia Malmstroem said she was following the rescue operations “with sadness and anxiety” and praised Italy and Malta for their swift response.
“These new horrible events are happening while we still have the shocking images of the tragedy in Lampedusa in our minds,” she said, adding that the latest disaster highlighted the need for expanded search and rescue operations “to better detect and assist boats in distress”.
The Commission has been urging EU states to pledge planes, ships and funds for EU border guard service Frontex, whose budget has been cut.
Italian prime minister Enrico Letta called the latest tragedy “a new and dramatic confirmation of the state of emergency” after speaking with Mr Muscat by phone.
“This is not just another wake-up call for Europe. This is the time for action,” Mr Muscat said.
“Italy and Malta cannot be left all alone, this is a European problem.”
Boat capsized when occupants tried to get attention of military aircraft
The asylum seekers in the latest disaster alerted the authorities using a satellite phone when their boat got into difficulty in Maltese waters.
The boat capsized after those aboard attempted to catch the attention of a military aircraft flying overhead by gathering at one end of the vessel, the Maltese navy said.
On Friday morning, Italian divers found another body from the refugee shipwreck last week off the coast of Lampedusa, raising the death toll in that tragedy to 312.
Only 155 survivors were rescued out of an estimated 500 people, most of them Eritreans and Somalis, on the boat which departed from Libya.
The disaster has shown up the EU’s asylum policy, which has been criticised for being overly restrictive and forcing refugees to resort to desperate measures to reach Europe.
EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was heckled by activists and local residents when he visited Lampedusa on Tuesday.
The remote island is Italy’s southernmost point and closer to the African continent than to the rest of the country.
Italy has appealed to EU states for help in coping with the thousands that are washing up on its shores every month, and wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels at the end of the month.
Immigration charities estimate that between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 20 years, often crossing on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 32,000 asylum seekers have arrived in southern Italy and Malta this year alone, with around two-thirds of them filing requests for asylum.
Earlier on Friday, at least 500 more migrants in at least three separate boats arrived or were rescued on the way to different areas of Sicily.
Most migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa, but this year many are fleeing the civil war in Syria or political turmoil in Egypt and other parts of North Africa.
Many are drawn by hopes of finding work in Europe and often do not stay in Italy.
12 dead in boat capsize off Egypt
Just hours earlier, at least 12 asylum seekers died when their boat capsized off Egypt, near the port of Alexandria.
At least 116 people were rescued, according to a security official.
Those on board the boat were mainly Syrian and Palestinian, thought to be trying to reach Europe.