More than 700 people fleeing Africa and the Middle East may have drowned in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean over the last week, bringing the death toll this year to almost 3,000, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Monday.
In the worst incident, as many as 500 migrants are believed to have died after traffickers rammed their ship off Malta’s coast last week, an event that only came to light this weekend in testimony from two of nine survivors.
The survivors said the traffickers ordered the migrants to change vessels in the middle of the Mediterranean. The migrants refused, leading to a confrontation that ended when traffickers rammed the ship carrying the migrants, causing it to sink, IOM spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume told Reuters in Geneva.
“Some 500 people were on board — Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese. They were trying to reach Europe,” Berthiaume said.
“That means that 700 people perished at sea these last days in the Mediterranean, the deadliest incidents in the space of a few days,” she said.
“It was without any doubt the deadliest weekend ever in the Mediterranean,” Carlotta Sami of the UNHCR said.
Migrants have been streaming out of North Africa, mostly from lawless Libya, in rickety boats in rising numbers for years. Many head for Italy, a gateway to the European Union (EU).
“A combination of factors has led to a major increase. They do not have other very easy options to get anywhere else from Libya. They are not able to get to surrounding countries in North Africa from Libya. These are all factors pushing up the number of people desperate to make the crossing who are preyed on by unscrupulous traffickers,” Markus said.
Some 130,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, compared with 60,000 last year, according to the UNHCR.
Italy has received more than 118,000, most of them rescued at sea under its naval operation Mare Nostrum.