At least 94 people died and 250 were missing after a boat packed with African migrants sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa yesterday, the Italian coast guard said.
Bodies fished from the water were laid out along the quayside as the death toll rose in what looked like one of the worst disasters to hit the perilous route for migrants seeking to reach Europe from Africa.
“It’s horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them out,” Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini told reporters.
The coast guard said 151 survivors had been rescued after the 20m boat caught fire and sank about 1km off the island.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said about 500 passengers, all Eritreans, had boarded the boat in Libya.
The disaster came four days ago after 13 migrants drowned off eastern Sicily, and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said action was needed by the EU to stem “a succession of massacres of innocent people.”
Last year, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing making the crossing from Tunisia to Italy, the UNHCR says. Numbers have been boosted by thousands of refugees from the civil war in Syria.
“I commend the swift action taken by the Italian coast guard to save lives. At the same time, I am dismayed at the rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.
Migrants frequently land on Lampedusa, just 113km from the coast of Tunisia, often picked up at sea in dangerously overcrowded boats by the Italian coast guard.
Pope Francis, who visited the island in July on his first papal trip outside Rome, said he felt “great pain” for the “many victims of the latest tragic shipwreck today off Lampedusa.”
“The word that comes to mind is ‘shame,’” Francis said in unscripted remarks after a speech in the Vatican. “Let us unite our strengths so that such tragedies never happened again.”
The stream of migrants is a humanitarian and political problem for the Italian government. About 15,000 reached Italy and Malta — 13,200 and 1,800 respectively — by sea last year, the UNHCR says.
Calling the deaths of migrants “an endless tragedy,” Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said: “The rescue operation began immediately but it is getting more difficult because now the weather is getting colder, they don’t know how to swim, they don’t know where to go.”
A fishing boat raised the alarm about 7:20am and began pulling people out of the water before coast guard vessels arrived on the scene.
Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said more needed to be done to combat people traffickers who coordinate the transport of migrants in unsafe vessels.
“It is a task which we have to take on and which the international community and the European community have to take on as well,” he said.