Merchant ships attempting to come to the aid of migrant boats in the Mediterranean may have inadvertently contributed to the loss of an estimated 1,000 lives in the past week.
Last night, 600 to 700 migrants are believed to have drowned when their vessel capsized about 120nm south the Italian island of Lampedusa.
According to the Times of Malta and the BBC, men on deck suddenly rushed to one side of the vessel trying to attract the attention of a passing merchant vessel. The action caused their overloaded craft to capsize rapidly.
A Portuguese merchant vessel was able to rescue only 28 people, who were plucked from among “scores” of bodies floating in the water.
A major search-and-rescue operation is under way, involving 20 ships and three helicopters, but hopes of finding more survivors are fading.
In almost identical circumstances on Monday, around 350 people are feared to have perished when migrants rushed to the side of their boat on spotting a merchant vessel about 65nm off Lampedusa. Although 145 migrants were rescued, those below deck, mostly women and children trying to shelter from the cold, were unable to escape when the boat went down.
Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the men on deck became restless when they saw a ship approaching them. “Women and children died immediately,” Millman told news agency Reuters.
In a separate incident, rescued migrants who arrived in Trapani, Sicily, on Thursday reported a further 41 people had drowned.
While the Italian and Maltese coast guards, merchant ships and other vessels have helped rescue about 10,000 migrants since last weekend, the latest casualties add to this year’s death toll of 900 people. If the trend continues, as many as 30,000 people could die, the IOM warned. On Wednesday, the French branch of charity Amnesty International noted that 3,400 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year double the loss of life from the sinking of Titanic 103 years ago.
The number of crossings, mostly from Libya towards Italy, is expected to increase as weather in the region improves.
Both IOM and Amnesty are calling for the European Union to establish a properly equipped, co-ordinated SAR operation.
Amnesty deputy programme director Gauri Van Gulik said: “How many more people have to die before European governments acknowledge that relying on a patchwork quilt of resources for SAR operations is not enough?” The Times of Malta quoted the charity’s director for Europe and Central Asia, John Dalhuisen, as saying: “Whilst merchant vessels and their crews have bravely attempted to fill the gap left by the chronic shortfall in specialist SAR teams, they are not designed, equipped or trained for maritime rescue. It is time for European governments to face their responsibilities and urgently set up a multi-country concerted humanitarian operation to save lives at sea.”
On French television channel Canal+, President François Hollande of France called for more boats more aerial surveillance and a more determined assault on people-trafficking.
The European Commission said in a statement that it is working on a new migration strategy for adoption in mid-May.
Some EU member states strongly oppose re-establishing the Mare Nostrum rescue initiative, which was replaced last year by the cheaper, geographically restricted, border control-focused Triton. Against a background of its 7 May general election campaign, heavily swayed by anti-migration debates, the UK opposes provision of extra SAR capability as tending to encourage migration.
Last month, crossbench peer Lord Hylton told IHS Maritime: “There seems to be little change in the ‘hands-off’ attitude of the British Government to Mediterranean boat people. I am not sure whether they understand that merchant ships are unsuitable for mass rescues.”