Survivors rescued off the Libyan coast by the Italian Coast Guard gave harrowing accounts of small boats packed with migrants that were overwhelmed by high waves, which washed scores of people overboard to their deaths in cold Mediterranean waters, humanitarian organizations said Wednesday.
The groups said more than 300 people might already have died by the time coast guard vessels reached the scene. An additional 29 who were rescued later died of hypothermia before the vessels could reach port.
The latest deaths at sea drew immediate complaints about the program run by the European Union, known as Triton, that is responsible for patrolling the continent’s shores and rescuing people in distress. Triton is more limited in scope than a rescue operation run by the Italian Navy that was disbanded last fall.
In a message on Twitter, Nils Muiznieks, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, called the most recent deaths “another preventable tragedy on the Mediterranean.” He added: “The E.U. needs effective search and rescue. Triton does not meet this need.”
According to survivors’ accounts, four inflatable boats filled with migrants from Africa departed from a port near Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday, with the goal of landing on Italian soil.
But only one boat was located by the Italian Coast Guard. A merchant ship later rescued nine survivors from two of the other boats, but it was not clear what had become of those craft. Nothing was yet known about the fourth. Survivors said more than 100 people were aboard each of the rubber boats.
Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in Italy, said that migrants had been “swallowed up by the waves.”
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said the migrants “were all sub-Saharan Africans, the human cargoes of the smugglers.”
“They were scared; they realized the sea was too rough to make it,” Mr. Di Giacomo said, but “many told us that they were threatened with knives and guns to get aboard.”
The Italian authorities and humanitarian agencies cited shortcomings in the Triton patrol operation. Triton restricts its activities to waters close to the European coast; most fatal shipwrecks, especially those involving migrant smuggling, happen much farther away, where rescue efforts are harder.
Mare Nostrum, the Italian-run program that preceded Triton, responded to more distant distress calls and was credited with saving hundreds of lives. It began in late 2013, shortly after a shipwreck off the Italian island Lampedusa left 360 people dead. Monday’s rescue from the foundering boat occurred about 100 miles south of Lampedusa.
“The Triton operation does not have saving human lives as its principal mandate and therefore cannot be the response we urgently need,” said Laurens Jolles, the United Nations refugee agency’s delegate for Southern Europe.
Humanitarian agencies and local authorities said the number of people attempting the perilous sea crossing was sure to increase as spring approaches and the weather improves, regardless of the scaling back of the European rescue effort.
“Whoever thought that closing Mare Nostrum might have a deterring effect was clearly wrong,” Ms. Sami, the United Nations spokeswoman, told the Italian news channel Sky TG24.
Source: New York Times