Migrants charged with throwing 12 Christians overboard

Muslims arrested in Sicily over ‘religious hatred’ as over 40 feared drowned in separate incident

Rescued migrants line up after disembarking at the southern Italian port of Corigliano, Italy, on Wednesday.  Photograph: Francesco Arena/ANSA via AP

Rescued migrants line up after disembarking at the southern Italian port of Corigliano, Italy, on Wednesday. Photograph: Francesco Arena/ANSA via AP


Italy’s ongoing boat people crisis off its southern coast took a serious turn for the worse on Thursday when 15 Muslim migrants were arrested and charged with having thrown 12 Christians overboard during their crossing of the Mediterranean.

Those arrested are from Mali, Senegal, Guinea Bissau and the Ivory Coast, while the origins of the 12 Christians drowned are not yet confirmed, although it is believed they were from Nigeria and Ghana.

The police arrests were made on the basis of both verbal and photographic evidence gathered from survivors of the crossing, which took place on Tuesday night. More than 80 migrants arrived in Palermo port on board the Panama-registered Ellensborg cargo ship which had rescued them.

Survivors say that a fight between the two groups of boat people had broken out along religious lines. Furthermore, the Christians on the boat claim that if they had not themselves formed a sort of protective “human chain”, then the Muslims would have thrown more Christians overboard. The 15 men were arrested on a warrant signed by Italian justice minister Andrea Orlando, charged with “multiple homicide instigated by religious hatred”.

It was not the only disturbing development on a dramatic day. Four of the 586 migrants who landed in Trapani, Sicily early Thursday morning on the Italian navy vessel Foscari told rescue workers that they were the only survivors of a dinghy which sank in mid-Mediterranean. The survivors, who are from Nigeria, Niger and Ghana, claim that 41 people drowned when their flimsy boat overturned and sank only hours after departing from the Libyan coast.

Among the 586 migrants who arrived in Trapani on Thursday, a group largely composed of Syrians and sub-Saharan Africans, were more than 40 unaccompanied minors, six babies and 10 pregnant women. That “cargo” was representative of all the boat people arrivals, with nearly every boat transporting a large number of women, babies and minors.

It was not the only arrival of the day, with two other rescue ships headed for Sicily last night believed to be carrying 893 more migrants between them. With Sicily and Calabria having had to accommodate more than 11,000 boat people over the last five days, local authorities are having difficulty handling the latest influx.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, for obvious geographical reasons, the relatively poorer five regions of Italy’s south – Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata and Campania – absorb more than 50 per cent of the migrants. Thus, while Sicily has the biggest intake of all, catering for 22 per cent of the boat people, a rich region like Lombardy has an intake of just 9 per cent.

In response to appeals from the civil protection and other rescue services, the autonomous Valle d’Aosta region on the Alpine border with France signalled that it had space for just one migrant.

Separately, three other traffickers were identified and arrested in Catania. At least one of the three is believed to have been involved in a bizarre incident earlier this week in which traffickers fired shots into the air to intimidate the personnel of an Italian rescue cargo ship so that they could reclaim their “transport” dinghy.