Dozens of migrants died after their boat capsized in the Strait of Sicily, with just a handful rescued, survivors reported on Wednesday, as yet another perilous attempt to cross the Mediterranean in a rickety, unsuitable vessel ended in disaster.
Four people, including a child, were saved, according to Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman with the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, citing the survivors’ own testimony. The migrants were from Guinea and the Ivory Coast, he added, and they had departed from the Tunisian city of Sfax before being spotted and rescued by a commercial boat. They arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily on Wednesday.
The authorities did not immediately release any further details, such as when the boat had left Tunisia; where the shipwreck had taken place in the strait, a section of the Mediterranean that separates the African country from Sicily; and exactly how many people had died. Survivors told the U.N. migration agency that 41 had drowned out of a total of 45 onboard.
Migrants, often from sub-Saharan Africa and desperate to escape war and poverty in their own countries, have increasingly taken to poorly constructed or overcrowded boats to make the crossing to Europe. This case, Mr. di Giacomo said, appeared to be an example of a recent phenomenon of using makeshift iron vessels, not much sturdier than basic rowboats, that smugglers pile people into for the risky crossing.
Those vessels are very weak, easily capsize and often disintegrate not long after setting out to sea, Mr. di Giacomo said. “They are the most fragile boats that we have ever seen in the central Mediterranean in many years,” he noted, adding that it was “scandalous” that traffickers employed the boats, particularly when there were forecasts of rough conditions, as was the case in the strait in recent days.
In total this year, more than 1,800 people have died in the central Mediterranean, according to the United Nations migration agency, about twice as many as in the same period last year. According to several organizations who work with migrants, however, even those numbers are probably underestimates, because many shipwrecks leave no survivors to bear witness.
The increase in deaths is in part linked to more departures — and arrivals in Italy have also doubled when compared with the number at the same time last year. Many migrants, often fleeing the appalling conditions in their home countries, experience dire treatment and prejudice in the North African countries they pass through, pushing them harder to attempt the dangerous sea crossing. Even then, the reception in Europe, where governments have become increasingly intolerant of migration, can also be an ordeal.
Nonetheless, thousands of migrants seeking the promise of a better future have little option but to put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers every year, leading to calamitous disasters. In June, more than 600 migrants died after their boat, the Adriana, capsized off Greece, with the country’s authorities facing accusations of failing to prevent the tragedy despite having known that the boat was at risk.