Death toll rises in black week for Mediterranean migration

30 people lost at sea and 20 found dead in Libyan desert as migration routes from Africa rebound

At least 30 people were lost at sea, including eight children, after a rubber boat foundered in the central Mediterranean Sea, increasing the death toll in a grim week for the migration route.

The 71 survivors picked up by a search-and-rescue boat operated by Médecins Sans Frontières on Tuesday included several women who said they had lost their children as the flimsy boat sank, the charity said.

A pregnant woman who was pulled on board could not be saved, while a four-month-old baby required emergency care and was evacuated with her mother to Malta.

The remaining 69 survivors were still on board the ship on Thursday after it was not successful in finding a port in Malta and continued northward, and is now awaiting instructions from Italian authorities, MSF said.

“After experiencing this traumatic event they should have the proper care, especially when people lost their relatives or friends or even their children,” said Juan Matias Gil, an MSF search-and-rescue representative. “We are just in front of the coast of Sicily and we are pushing the Italian government to assign us a port.”

The incident adds to a deadly week for the Mediterranean crossing route to Europe, one of the world’s deadliest migration paths, after at least 23 people died trying to cross from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

In addition, the bodies of 20 people were also discovered in the Libyan desert on Tuesday by a truck driver, according to rescue services, after their vehicle apparently became lost and they ran out of water.

The group are believed to have been migrants travelling from neighbouring Chad to Libya, which is the main departure point for the Mediterranean crossing and also a draw for people hopeful of finding work in the north African country.

More than 24,000 people have gone missing on the Mediterranean crossing route since 2014, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), with over 1,500 lost last year.

The figure for those lost in attempts to reach Europe by sea already reached 600 in the first three months of 2022, according to IOM, the highest figure since 2014, as a series of fragile overloaded vessels foundered off the African coast.

The number of crossings is far below the peak seen in 2015, but has rebounded after a lull during the Covid-19 pandemic as conflict, climate change and poverty drives people towards Europe.

The EU’s border agency Frontex said it had registered 86,420 illegal border crossings across all entry points in the first five months of 2022, a rise of 82 per cent compared to the previous year.

The border agency, which is set for an increased budget and mandate, has come under criticism amid accusations of illegal pushbacks of migrants and other heavy-handed tactics by national border authorities, and its chief Fabrice Leggeri resigned following a critical probe earlier this year.

NGOs have called on EU member states to increase safe and legal pathways for people to Europe so they do not undertake dangerous journeys.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times