At least 300 migrants are feared to have drowned while attempting to cross the rough seas of the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy this week, the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR) announced on Thursday (12 February). Only nine people, understood to be the only survivors from two sunken boats, were rescued and taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa, while more than 200 other migrants are unaccounted for. As temperatures have plunged in the Mediterranean region, scores of migrants died after suffering from hypothermia. The deaths have revived criticism of Italy’s decision to cease its search-and-rescue mission due to concerns over costs.
UNHCR official Vincent Cochetel expressed his utmost sadness and dismay at what he described a “tragedy on an enormous scale”. Survivors brought to Lampedusa were reported to have been forced to risk the bad weather on ill-equipped vessels by human traffickers in Libya. They were rescued from two of four dinghies – a type of small boat, often carried or towed for use as a ship’s boat by a larger vessel – that got into trouble after leaving Libya for Europe last weekend. Those rescued on Wednesday had spent days drifting aimlessly across the Mediterranean without food or water squeezed in two dinghies with each reported to have carried more than 100 people. Overall, at least a quarter of those attempting the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean are thought to be refugees from Syria, rather than economic migrants.
The UN stressed that the latest incident should be a wake-up call to the European Union that the current search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean was clearly insufficient. As more than 200,000 people were rescued in the Mediterranean only during 2014, “Europe cannot afford to do too little too late,” Mr Cochetel commented. In a speech to the European Parliament earlier in 2014, Pope Francis appealed to the EU to come up with a “united response” to the issue, warning that the Mediterranean could not be allowed to become a “vast cemetery”.