Migrant crisis: shipwrecks claim 700 lives in one week

Warm weather brings surge in crossings from Libya to Italy, but EU policy change unlikely

A woman is helped by medical staff aboard the Italian navy vessel Vega at the Reggio Calabria harbour, southern Italy. Photograph: Antonio Parrinello/Reuters

A woman is helped by medical staff aboard the Italian navy vessel Vega at the Reggio Calabria harbour, southern Italy. Photograph: Antonio Parrinello/Reuters


More than 700 migrants are feared to have died following three shipwrecks off the Libyan coast in the past week. The deaths come amid a surge in the number of asylum seekers making the Mediterranean crossing as the warmer weather brings calmer seas.

The likely death toll was confirmed by Carlotta Sami, a UN refugee agency spokeswoman, after one of the busiest weeks on record for the Italian navy and coast guard, which rescued about 15,000 people during operations south of Italy’s shores.

The vast majority of arrivals are sub-Saharan Africans who transited through Libya.

There is no evidence of a massive movement of Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees trying to cross to Italy from Libya after the closure of Balkan route and the EU’s controversial deal with Turkey, which effectively brought sea crossings to Greece to a halt.

The high number of deaths off Libya last week confirms the dangers involved in crossing the central Mediterranean to Europe, a longer and riskier journey than the path across the Aegean Sea favoured by most migrants last year.

Death toll

On Thursday, 91 people were rescued after their boat took on water and sank. Survivors reported that another 400 people had been on board and were missing.

On Friday, 160 more people were feared missing, and 45 confirmed dead, after another vessel sank off the Libyan coast, bringing the death toll for the three days to 700. About 40 children are estimated to have died.

The grim figure is unlikely to trigger any policy shift in Europe. After a single shipwreck off Libya killed more than 700 people in April 2015, the EU boosted funding for search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, which have largely been Italy’s burden. But the EU has struggled to forge common policies on overhauling the asylum system and distributing migrants across member states, amid resistance from many countries.

Humanitarian corridors

But the number of migrants involved in such programmes has been small and scaling them up would be fraught with obstacles.

“Sunday counting victims. Macabre exercise. Will the world realise the 700 people would have deserved safe passage?” the UN’s Ms Sami said on Twitter.

Italy is likely to reiterate its call for the EU to ramp up efforts to reach deals with African countries that would force them to stop migrants from leaving and accept them back once deported in exchange for financial assistance.

However, striking such agreements with a plethora of African countries is much more diplomatically difficult than it was with a single government in the case of Turkey.

Libya, the main transit country for migrants to Italy, is consumed by political chaos as a government of national unity tries to establish itself amid the rise of Islamic State and a lingering civil war.

Meanwhile, Italian authorities are trying to disperse the rescued migrants across the country, bringing them to ports across Sicily, as well as Calabria, Puglia and Sardinia.

So far, about 46,000 have arrived in Italy this year – roughly in line with the number which arrived in 2015.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)