At least 94 persons seeking to emigrate from Africa to Europe were killed when their ship caught fire and capsized near Sicily. Hundreds of passengers were forced to throw themselves into the sea near the Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of other African migrants have sought previously to reach Europe. More than 150 people were rescued on the morning of October 3, but at least 200 other souls are missing and fear lost in the waves. So far, it is considered one of the most deadly incidents in the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing where Africans seek a better life in the European Union.
Lampedusa is closer to Africa than it is to Europe, lying just 70 miles (113 kilometres) off the coast of Tunisia. It is a frequent destination for smugglers of narcotics, contraband, and human beings. This is the second shipwreck off Italy in less than a week. On September 30, 13 men drowned while trying to reach southern Sicily when their ship ran aground just a few yards from shore.
According to Lampedusa’s chief of health services, Pietro Bartolo, "We need only caskets, certainly not ambulances.” Speaking to Radio 24, Bartolo said there were 94 confirmed deaths but also told Sky TG24 he expected that to rise as search operations continued. Mayor Giusi Nicolini of Lampedusa reported that the dead included at least one three-year-old child and a pregnant woman, calling it an immense tragedy.
Bodies covered in tarps were seen lined up on the quay at Lampedusa’s port. Local fishermen, elements of the coast guard, and helicopters from across the region are still searching the sea in hopes of finding survivors. The vessel full of migrants set of from the port at Tripoli, Tunisia, and bore migrants Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia.
A government spokesman calculated the number of those rescued at 159 people. However, the ship is believed to have carried up to 500 people.
The ship reportedly caught fire after passengers set off flares so it would be seen by passing ships. The ship apparently then capsized, spilling the passengers into the sea near Conigli island in the vicinity of Lampedusa.
Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano canceled his appointments and went to Lampedusa to personally manage the rescue. Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July, quickly sent condolences.
Hundreds of migrants reach the shores of the Italian peninsula each day, especially during the summer when the sea is calmer. Usually their cases for political and humanitarian asylum are processed at immigration centers in places such as Lampedusa. They are usually sent back home. Typically, these migrants do not remain for long in Italy but instead make their way to northern Europe where social welfare payments are more generous and immigrant communities are larger and better organized. Migrants to Italy are allowed to work legally if they obtain a work permit and contract before coming.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of the year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. However, this is far less than the tens of thousands who arrived in Italy through Lampedusa during the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. The number of migrants has increased recently, with many Syrians added to the mix.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had recorded 40 deaths in the first half of 2013 for migrants arriving in Italy and Malta, and a total of 500 for all of 2012. Fortress Europe, an organization that monitors media reports of migrant deaths, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.