At least 700 refugees drown in Mediterranean

UN refugee agency confirms at least 700 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean since Wednesday, while some estimates put the death toll at 900.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Refugees wait to disembark in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, May 28, 2016.

The UN’s refugee agency confirmed on Sunday that more than 700 refugees have drowned in three separate shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea in the last few days.

The boats, carrying refugees attempting to cross into Europe from Africa, reportedly sank south of the Italian coast.

UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told The Associated Press by telephone that around 100 people have been missing since their boat capsized on Wednesday.

Devastating images from the sinking were captured by the Italian Navy as they rushed to save as many of those on board as they could.

Another 550 refugees have been missing since Thursday, after being out at sea for a day, the spokeswoman added.

According to the spokeswoman, the unseaworthy vessel, which didn’t even have an engine and had to be towed by another smuggler boat, was overcrowded with around 670 passengers when it capsized.

Around 104 survived either by swimming to the first boat or by being rescued, but international patrol boats were only able to retrieve 15 bodies.

Refugees partially submerged boat before to be rescued by Spanish fregate Reina Sofia taking part in the European Union military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) off the coast of Libya released on May 26, 2016.

But figures provided by Italian police contradict the UNHCR’s account. 

Survivors of the shipwreck told Italian authorities that after eight hours of navigation, the second boat began to take on water. Frantic efforts to empty the water failed to keep it afloat, so the commander of the first boat decided to cut the tow rope. 

The Italian police said 90 refugees were rescued after jumping off the top deck, but those who could not be rescued, including around 300 trapped in the lower deck, drowned.

The commander of the first boat, a 28-year-old Sudanese man, was later arrested after being taken to Italy.

A third shipwreck, which occurred on Friday, left an unspecified number of people dead, but at least 45 bodies were retrieved while 135 others were rescued.

In a tweet by MSF Sea, it was estimated that the total death toll of all three shipwrecks could be as high as 900.

Last week, at least 4,000 refugees were rescued in the Mediterranean en route to Italy’s southern islands.

Tightened controls in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece has revived the sea route from northern Africa to southern Europe. With improving weather conditions, it is expected that the flow of refugees risking their lives in the Mediterranean will increase.

TRTWorld and agencies