Fleeing Despair, Finding Death in the Mediterranean

Italy MigrantsA Red Cross officer carries a baby wrapped in a blanket after migrants disembarked at the Sicilian Porto Empedocle harbor, Italy, Monday, April 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Calogero Montanalampo)

As many as 900 migrants may be dead after a ship crowded with migrants capsized and sank in the Mediterranean on April 19. The authorities described a grisly scene of bodies floating and submerging in the warm waters, with the majority of the dead apparently trapped in the ship at the bottom of the sea.

The fatal shipwreck may prove to be the Mediterranean’s deadliest migrant disaster ever and is only the latest tragedy in Europe’s migration crisis. Warmer spring weather has unleashed a torrent of smuggler boats, mostly from Libya, bearing migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

Even as efforts continued to collect the bodies from the sinking off Libya late Saturday and early Sunday — only 28 survivors have been found — Italian rescue ships responded to new distress calls from other vessels. A second migrant ship crashed near the Greek island of Rhodes, underscoring the relentless flow of people fleeing poverty, persecution and war.

Death at sea has become a grimly common occurrence: Even before this weekend’s sinking, humanitarian groups estimated that 900 migrants had already died this year, compared with 90 during the same period a year ago. That figure could rise sharply, as officials estimate that 700 people may have drowned in the weekend disaster.

The rising death toll is renewing criticism of the European response, especially the Triton program, introduced in November to patrol the Mediterranean and rescue migrants. United Nations officials and humanitarian groups have argued that Triton is too limited in scope and resources and thus is placing migrants at grave risk.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy, speaking Sunday, blamed human traffickers who smuggle migrants on rickety ships, describing them as “the slave drivers of the 21st century.”

For the past several years, Europe has been confronted with hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving illegally from Africa and the Middle East. Italy has been in the vanguard of rescue efforts, with its Navy and Coast Guard ships rescuing more than 130,000 people last year in a widely praised program known as Mare Nostrum.

The Italian program began in October 2013 as an emergency response to a shipwreck that killed more than 360 people near the Italian island of Lampedusa.

But Mare Nostrum was phased out last autumn and replaced by the European-led Triton, which has fewer ships and a less well-defined mandate. António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, called Sunday for Europe to expand its rescue and patrol program as well as the legal avenues for migration to Europe so that people would not have to risk their lives at sea.

Sources:
✻ Death in the Mediterranean | CBS 60 Minutes (Video & Transcript)

Death in the Mediterranean -By Nicola Perugini | Al Jazeera English

Hundreds of Migrants Are Feared Dead as Ship Capsizes Off Libyan Coast -By Jim Yardley | NYT

✻ Rising Toll on Migrants Leaves Europe in Crisis; 900 May Be Dead at Sea -By Jim Yardley | NYT

✻ What’s Behind the Surge in Refugees Crossing the Mediterranean Sea (Maps)

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