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At least 114 drown after migrants' boat capsizes off Italy

The boat carrying Africans was just short of Lampedusa island. Italy calls on the European Union to help stem such tragedies.

October 03, 2013|By Tom Kington
  • The body of a drowned passenger who was aboard a boat loaded with African migrants is brought ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The body of a drowned passenger who was aboard a boat loaded with African… (Claudio Peri / European…)

ROME — European and Italian officials were once again struggling Thursday to come up with ways to stop desperate African migrants from perishing in the Mediterranean after at least 114 people drowned when their boat caught fire and capsized.

During a frantic rescue operation using fishing boats, helicopters and coast guard vessels, more than 150 people were pulled from the water off the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is 70 miles from the African coast and a popular destination for migrant sailings. But more than 200 were still missing.

The capsizing of the boat, which was reportedly carrying about 500 Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian migrants seeking a new life in Europe, is one of the worst disasters yet on the route sailed each year by thousands of Africans.

"We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances," said Pietro Bartolo, chief of health services on Lampedusa, as corpses were lined up on the island's quayside. Other bodies were taken to a hangar at the airport.

"It's horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them," said Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini. Three children and two pregnant women were reported to be among the victims, many of whom could not swim.

The 66-foot boat began to take on water half a mile from Lampedusa after its engine lost power, prompting passengers to set fire to a blanket on board to attract rescuers. Angelino Alfano, Italy's interior minister, said fuel in the water ignited, setting the ship on fire and pushing passengers over to one side of the vessel, which caused it to capsize.

"If they had been able to use a telephone, they could have been saved," he said.

Divers saw dozens of bodies around the boat, which sank to the seabed.

Father Mussie Zerai, a Rome-based priest who assists migrants, said he had received desperate calls from passengers' relatives in the United States, Canada and Africa wanting news. "It is the end of the sailing season, which is why they really loaded the boat," he said.

The United Nations' refugee agency has said that 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first half of 2013, up from the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. About 500 migrants are believed to have died on the crossing last year, and more than 6,000 are believed to have drowned off Sicily from 1994 to 2012.

"The word that comes to mind is 'shame,'" Pope Francis, who in July met with migrants on the island, said Thursday during a speech. "Let us unite our strengths so that such tragedies never happen again."

Survivors of the capsizing reported that three fishing boats had seen their fire but sailed on without assisting.

Italy has long fought for more support from the European Union as it seeks to rescue migrants at sea and process claims for asylum once they are on land.

"This is not an Italian tragedy, this is a European tragedy," Alfano said. "Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy."

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said action was needed by the EU to stem "a succession of massacres of innocent people" and called for monitoring of the coasts from which the boats leave.

Italy instituted a "pushback" system in 2009 with the government of the late Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi involving joint sea patrols that turned back boats leaving Libya. But last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy had violated the rights of migrants to seek asylum.

"If the European Union doesn't open up humanitarian routes for migrants, or assist with the redistribution of migrants, traffickers just go on finding new routes for them. No wall will stop them," Zerai said.

The priest said many of the sub-Saharan Africans escaping turmoil in their homelands travel through Libya to make the crossing to Europe. In Libya they pay huge sums to be loaded by unscrupulous traffickers onto rickety vessels that often run out of fuel.

"Those who come from Libya could stay there if their rights were respected, but we know of 22 detention centers where they are mistreated and must pay to get out," Zerai said. "Let's have a U.N. center in Libya for filtering them."

Kington is a special correspondent.

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