WATCH ABOVE: The captain of a boat full of migrants, that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, is in custody. He’s facing multiple charges after being found on a rescue boat, while hundreds of passengers were left on board the sinking vessel. Stuart Greer reports.
According to UNHCR, about 3,500 people died in 2014 while trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the number of lives lost that year at 3,279 — a no less tragic statistic.
The total number of deaths this year “could well top 30,000,” said Joel Millman, spokesman for IOM. “We just want to make sure people understand how much more … rapid these deaths have been coming this year than last year.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is now calling an accident Saturday the “deadliest incident in the Mediterranean” the UN agency has ever recorded.
It’s now believed more than 800 people lost their lives.
The 27-year-old Tunisian captain of a fishing boat smuggling hundreds of migrants to Europe when it capsized off the coast off Libya on Saturday, is now facing trafficking and reckless multiple homicide charges in Italy.
Italian police arrested Mohammed Ali Malek and his Syrian crew member Mahmud Bikhit, 25 — whom authorities also charged with human trafficking — when they arrived in Sicily on a rescue boat, along with 25 other survivors of the disaster.
The overloaded boat struck a Portuguese-flagged container ship, the King Jacob, Saturday night about 180 kilometres south of Lampedusa, the Italian island that has become a hub for migrants arriving from North Africa. Panic on board caused the boat to tip and subsequently capsize, the New York Times reported.
“The survivors said that the person who was steering the boat, their smuggler, was navigating badly, and he did a bad move that made it crash against the bigger ship,” UNHCR spokesperson Carlotta Sami told The Associated Press, by telephone from Sicily.
While the hundreds of migrants on board the doomed vessel were either on deck or crammed into the second level of the boat, hundreds more were locked on the lowest level.
Of the estimated 850 people travelling aboard the 20-metre fishing boat, UNHCR said 350 were Eritrean, while others came from countries such as Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Syria — from where millions of people have fled the raging four-year civil war and the brutal advance of ISIS.
Since Saturday night’s disaster unfolded, the Italian Coast Guard has launched several search and rescue operations involving migrant vessels.
The Coast Guard assisted 638 people in six different incidents on Monday alone, BBC reported.
Also on Monday, a wood-framed boat carrying migrants and asylum seekers ran ashore on the Greek island of Rhodes. Most passengers were rescued, but three — including a young child — did not survive the accident.
According to the UNHCR, about 219,000 people made the Mediterranean crossing in 2014. In the first months of 2015, at least 35,000 have arrived in southern Europe.
By comparison, there were only about 60,000 migrants who journeyed from North Africa to Europe in 2013 — a little more than one-third of the 2014 number — and even fewer in 2012.
If officials confirm the exact number of migrants killed in Saturday’s disaster, the death toll so far this year could be as high as 1,600. The IOM said just 96 people died in the same period last year.
European leaders called an emergency meeting this week to address the tragic situation in the Mediterranean and the European Union has recommended increasing search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
With files from The Associated Press