75 Eritrean migrants die at sea

August 21, 2009

eritreanMigrant(ANSA) – Rome, August 20 – Five Eritreans rescued at sea off southern Italy on Thursday said 75 other people on board had died from lack of food and water after their boat ran out of fuel. According to the survivors, a group of 80 set out from Libya, a common staging-point for African migrants headed for Europe, about three weeks ago. Italian coastal patrols pulled just five people from the 12-metre-long boat on Thursday morning, as soon as Maltese authorities reported a sighting. Doctors attending the survivors described their condition as ”heart-rending”. ”They were little more than skeletons,” said one. A spokesperson for the Italian finance police coastal patrol, which rescued the group, said the claim of 75 deaths had initially been treated with some suspicion. But following the medical examination, the spokesperson said the extreme physical condition of the survivors was ”compatible” with so many others having died. The five, whose boat was intercepted around 12 miles off the coast of Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa, said they had cast the bodies overboard.

A coastal patrol is now searching for the remains.

News of the deaths was greeted with shock and anger by migrant organizations and opposition politicians. The spokesperson for the Italian division of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Laura Boldrini, said it was an ”alarming” story. ”It appears that these survivors are all that remains of a tragedy involving some 80 people, most of whom were Eritrean, who set out from Libya at the end of July,” she said. ”It’s alarming that these people were adrift in the Mediterranean for 20 days without a single other boat stopping to help them. This is a truly distressing first that is enormously worrying”. Christopher Hein of the Italian Refugee Council suggested the boat had been deliberately left adrift. ”Given that the strip of sea between Lampedusa and Libya is under full surveillance both day and night, it is simply not possible that a 12-metre-long boat could remain adrift for so long with not one person noticing,” he said. ”That means these people were deliberately left to meet their fate”. The leader of the main opposition Democratic party, Dario Franceschini, said he was horrified by the news. Referring to a controversial ‘push-back’ policy launched in May, under which migrant boats intercepted in the Mediterranean are sent back to Libya, he said ”the fight against illegal immigration is one thing but ignoring basic human rights is something else entirely”. Sonia Alfano, an MEP with the small opposition Italy of Values party, said ”this latest tragedy, which took place off our coasts amid the greatest indifference should make us reflect on the state of our so-called superior civilization”. At least 124 migrants are known to have died at sea last year in five separate incidents while making the crossing from North Africa to Europe.

Earlier this year, four boats carrying over 500 migrants sank in waters between Africa and Italy. Around 100 people are thought to have died during the accident, although nearly 400 were rescued. According to figures released by the Italian interior ministry, around 37,000 people landed on Italian coasts in 2008 – a 75% increase on 2007.

Boat migrant landings in Italy, and particularly the island of Lampedusa, have dropped significantly since the start of the ‘push-back’ policy.

Nearly a thousand people have been sent back to Libya so far as part of an agreement between Rome and Tripoli.