Published On : Tuesday, May 31 2016
ROME — The migrant ships kept sinking. First came a battered, blue-decked vessel that flipped over on Wednesday as terrified migrants plunged into the Mediterranean Sea. The next day, a flimsy craft capsized with hundreds of people aboard. And on Friday, still another boat sank into the deceptively placid waters of the Mediterranean.
Three days and three sunken ships are again confronting Europe with the horrors of its refugee crisis, as desperate people trying to reach the Continent keep dying at sea. At least 700 people from the three boats are believed to have drowned, the United Nations refugee agency announced on Sunday, in one of the deadliest weeks in the Mediterranean in recent memory.
The latest drownings — which would push the death toll for the year to more than 2,000 people — are a reminder of the cruel paradox of the Mediterranean calendar: As summer approaches with blue skies, warm weather and tranquil waters prized by tourists, human trafficking along the North African coastline traditionally kicks into a higher gear.
Taking advantage of calm conditions, smugglers in Libya send out more and more migrants toward Italy, often on unseaworthy vessels. Drowning deaths are inevitable, even as Italian Coast Guard and Navy ships race to answer distress calls. Last year, more than 3,700 migrants died in the Mediterranean, a figure that could be surpassed this year.
In a statement on Sunday, the United Nations Children’s Fund said many of the migrants who drowned in the past week were believed to be unaccompanied adolescents.
The grisly week also underscored the complex problem that the refugee crisis poses for Europe. The Continent’s leaders, facing an anti-immigrant backlash in many countries, have signed a controversial deal with Turkey that so far has sharply reduced the migrant flow into Greece; last year, roughly one million people marched through the Balkans toward Germany.
Yet closing the Greek route has shifted attention to the longer, more dangerous sea route from Libya to Italy. As of Wednesday, roughly 41,000 migrants had been rescued at sea after leaving Libya, nearly the same number from the same period last year, according to the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration.
The potential for a sudden increase in traffic is clear: An additional 4,000 migrants were rescued on Thursday alone, the same day that as many as 550 people died on the second migrant boat that sank.
“This was a very intense and exceptional week for the number of fatalities,” said Federico Fossi, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The deaths also point to the lack of solutions to the migrant crisis, which has been exacerbated by the violent chaos in Libya and fueled by the conflict in Syria.
What was apparently the deadliest episode occurred on Thursday. A boat was towed away from the Libyan coastline by a larger smuggler ship. Survivors described being crammed onto a flimsy vessel filled with 670 people. Once the larger boat dropped the towline, the smaller one capsized.
There were already 100 people missing from the ship that sank on Wednesday — a wooden fishing boat that flipped within sight of the Italian Navy (which later released a video that showed desperate people clinging to the deck or being tossed into the sea). On Friday, the navy rescued 135 migrants — and recovered 45 bodies — from a sinking smuggling boat on its way from Libya to Italy.
“This week was a massacre,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman in Sicily with Save the Children, the nonprofit humanitarian group.
Mr. Fossi, the United Nations spokesman, warned that the death toll could grow. “And surely many of those victims will be women and children, as usual,” he added.
The vast majority of migrants trying to reach Italy are coming from sub-Saharan African nations like Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria. Last year, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq poured into Europe, mostly traveling through Turkey into Greece.
Now that the Greece route is largely shut down, the question is whether Syrians and Iraqis will try to reach Libya for the dangerous journey to Italy. That was the case in 2014, before smugglers began focusing on Greece.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy has tried for months to force the European Union to focus on Libya. He raised the issue again at the recent meeting of the Group of 7 nations and has proposed holding a Group of 7 meeting next year in Sicily, which has borne the brunt of Italy’s migrant crisis. Mr. Renzi also has proposed the creation of Euro bonds to help finance the response to the crisis — a move opposed by Germany so far.
Much attention has been focused on Germany, as it absorbs nearly one million refugees who arrived last year. But Italy is also feeling the strain. With the summer migrant season soon to arrive, more than 115,000 migrants are already in Italy, an enormous increase from only a few years ago.
Italian news media regularly broadcasts videos and photographs of sinking boats, as well as men, women and children wrapped in thermal blankets. In one striking image, a rescue official held a 9-month-old girl who had lost her pregnant mother.
On Saturday at the Vatican, Pope Francis showed a gathering of children a life jacket used by a Syrian girl who died while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.
“Migrants are not a danger — they are in danger,” Francis told his young audience.