IOM condemns people smugglers who send migrants fleeing hardship to their deaths in the Mediterranean

By International Office of Migration (IOM)
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GENEVA, Switzerland, July 1, 2014/African Press Organization (APO)/ -- After the Italian navy found some 30 bodies in a fishing boat carrying up to 600 migrants between the Libyan coast and Sicily, the International Organization for Migration called upon European countries to provide additional resources for rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

“It's unacceptable that migrants should die while fleeing misfortune in hopes of a better life. We see in the latest tragedy that criminals mistreat migrants, cramming them into the holds of unsafe vessels,” said IOM Director General, William Lacy Swing.

“We don't yet know why these migrants died, but the focus must now be on the smuggling gangs who routinely send them to their deaths on unsafe vessels,” Swing added.

The Italian naval vessel Grecale found the overloaded fishing vessel after responding to a distress call made by the migrants who called an emigre Eritrean radio station in Sweden which then relayed the information to the Italian navy.

The Grecale was patrolling the Mediterranean between North Africa and Sicily under Italy's policy of Mare Nostrum, aimed at saving the lives of migrants making the passage from North Africa in unsafe vessels. Italy's search and rescue operations have saved tens of thousands of migrants' lives in the past 10 months. Upon boarding the fishing vessel on Sunday the navy discovered the bodies of 30 migrants in the hold, who had apparently asphyxiated from engine fumes.

There were between 300-600 migrants aboard the vessel according to reports, some of them pregnant women in distress. The Grecale was expected in Pozzallo, southern Sicily on Tuesday, 2 July.

Smugglers are increasingly putting migrants aboard unsafe vessels, without sufficient fuel to make the crossing. Life vests are rarely found aboard the migrant vessels, as smugglers prefer cramming more people aboard to increase the profitability of every passage.

“This new tragedy shows that traffickers are cramming migrants onto shockingly unsafe vessels,” said Ambassador Swing. “It must be possible to track down and prosecute these criminal gangs who cynically send migrants to their deaths,” Swing said.

Thanks to Mare Nostrum the number of reported deaths in the Mediterranean has decreased this year. In 2013, by contrast, some 700 migrants were reported to have drowned at sea. Italy has recovered 50 bodies this year, including the latest 30, but many more are believed to disappear without trace throughout the Mediterranean.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 60,000 migrants and asylum seekers arrived in Italy by sea, compared to 42,000 during 2013.

“This is a humanitarian emergency that concerns all Europe,” said Ambassador Swing.

Many of the migrants rescued this year were fleeing war and totalitarian regimes in the Middle East and Africa. Most of the arrivals since the beginning of this year have been fleeing hardship and oppression in Eritrea and Syria. Many transit via Libya where they often suffer torture and abuse at the hands of gangs and militias, on their route to find international protection in Europe. Migrants who previously arrived in Sicily have told IOM's officers upon arrival that they decided to risk boarding a boat bound for Italy because life in Syria, Eritrea and Libya had become unbearable, and they felt they had no alternative but to put their lives in the hands of smugglers.

Italy's Mare Nostrum operation started on 16 October 2013 after the worst tragedy in the Mediterranean for many years. On 5 October 2013, 368 men, women and children drowned when their boat caught fire. Mare Nostrum aims to save as many people as possible with ships which patrol the Mediterranean 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At the moment, the operation is carried out only by the Italian government, which says it costs more than 10 million Euros per month and cannot continue without additional support from other EU member states.