Thousands of migrants keep swamping Italy, with 142,000 arrivals estimated since the beginning of this year. However, an estimated 3,100 people have perished in the Mediterranean Sea during the same period. In the latest of the migrant surge, about 4,655 migrants were saved on Tuesday and 28 bodies recovered in more than 30 rescue missions off the Libyan coast, Italy’s coast guard said on Wednesday.
Italy’s The Local newspaper gave a death toll of 22 migrants, quoting a witness report by an AFP photographer. They were found dead Tuesday in an overloaded wooden boat off Libya. Most of the dead were Africans. Their nationalities were not disclosed in the reports.
The AFP Photographer Aris Messinis, who was able to go on board the vessel, said many of the dead had suffocated. “It was a wooden vessel and there were about 1,000 people on three levels. I counted 22 bodies and there are still others in the hold,” he said by telephone. Messinis was travelling on the Astral, a ship chartered by Spanish NGO ProActiva Open Arms, which rescues migrants at sea.
Towards 2000 GMT the Astral rescuers moved back to allow the Italian navy to take care of the survivors and retrieve the bodies, the photographer said. The deaths came after the Italian coastguard – which is coordinating rescue efforts in international waters north of Libya – said at least 1,800 migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast on Tuesday.
It was yet another day of drama at sea after more than 6,000 migrants, most of them Africans in packed rubber dinghies, were rescued off Libya on Monday. Nine bodies were found in those operations, including a pregnant woman. The Italian coastguard said operations had been carried out on Tuesday to bring migrants to safety from some 30 packed boats.
With numerous rescue boats en route to Italy to unload the huge human cargo collected on Monday, Messinis said the Astral was left alone to deal with the overloaded wooden boat for several hours. It was aided only by lifeboats dropped by a Spanish military plane until the navy arrived at midday.
“There was panic onboard, there were people jumping into the water,” Messinis said. More than 10,000 refugees have been picked up in just two days, as people smugglers take advantage of calm weather to push boats to sea.
Over the same period, at least 50 people have died trying to make the dangerous crossing.