More than 300 migrants die this week trying to reach Italy – UN agency

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says some 300 people are feared dead in the biggest migrant tragedy since the EU took over from Italy’s search and rescue mission.

LAMPEDUSA, ITALY (FEBRUARY 11, 2015) (REUTERS) – More than 300 people probably died this week after attempting to reach Italy from Libya on four separate boats in stormy weather, the U.N. refugee agency said on Wednesday (February 11), after speaking to a handful of survivors.

The flotilla of boats left a beach near Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday (February 7), Carlotta Sami, the spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Italy, told Reuters.

An Italian tug boat rescued nine people who had been on two of the boats on Monday (February 9), and brought them to the Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday morning.

They are the only known survivors from their boats, leaving more than 200 unaccounted for, they told representatives of the UNHCR.

Another boat, carrying an estimated 100 migrants, is missing survivors said.

“In fact this morning at 7.30 nine survivors arrived in Lampedusa. They confirmed what other survivors previously said, that there were 203 people with them that have disappeared. They have been swallowed by the sea, but in addition to that, they confirmed that there was a fourth dinghy, so we do not know about the fate of another hundred people,” explained Carlotta Sami, who was about to leave for Lampedusa.

The Italian coast guard said it picked up 105 people on Sunday (February 9), from one of the four boats.

The sea conditions were extreme, with waves as high as 8 metres (26 feet) and temperatures just a few degrees above zero.

Twenty-nine died of hypothermia in the 18 hours it took the coast guard to ferry them to Italy.

“The survivors are taken to the first reception centre in Lampedusa that now is working at full-scale. They receive assistance, they receive food, they receive medical assistance, they receive clothes. They arrived almost naked you know, they arrived without anything. And then within 24 hours, maximum 72 hours, they are transferred to other centres on the mainland,” Sami said.

The survivors rescued on Monday were from the Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea, Gambia and Niger, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.

Anarchy in Libya has made it the main departure point for people making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to enter the European Union through Italy.

They usually pay smugglers between $800-$2,000 USD to make the trip.

The recent deaths at sea have reignited criticism of Italy’s decision last year to end a full-scale search-and-rescue mission, known as Mare Nostrum, due to concerns over costs.

It was replaced by an EU border-control mission called Triton that employs fewer ships than Mare Nostrum did, and has a much smaller area of operation.

“What we have from the EU is not a response to the crisis, to the level, the scale of the crisis we have to face. And it’s quite surprising to us that the EU cannot respond with a stronger solidarity, with a stronger humanity and with a stronger strategy to that,” Sami added,

Counting the more than 300 estimated to have been in the three missing boats, almost 30 times as many have died since the start of 2015 versus the same period of last year, when the Mare Nostrum mission was still in place.