More than 300 migrants are feared drowned after their overcrowded dinghies sank in the Mediterranean, triggering calls for the world to act after the latest boat disaster on the perilous crossing from Africa to Europe.
Details of the apparent mass drownings emerged after nine migrants - in a group of more than 200 packed into two dinghies - were rescued by the coastguard and taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
“Nine were saved after four days at sea. The other 203 were swallowed by the waves,” UNHCR spokeswoman in Italy, Carlotta Sami, said on Twitter.
A total of 29 Africans believed to have sailed in one of the dinghies perished from exposure, most after being picked up by the Italian coastguard on Monday.
The UN refugee agency on Wednesday said reports from survivors in Lampedusa now suggest some 300 people are confirmed missing as a fourth boat is unaccounted for.
And the International Organization for Migration said it feared the latest death toll could eclipse the shocking toll from a single accident in October 2013 when 366 migrants drowned off Lampedusa in a similar attempt to reach Europe.
IOM said the migrants had travelled to Libya from Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, and that three children travelling on their own were among the survivors.
“What’s happening now is worse than a tragedy - it’s a crime,” IOM chief William Lacy Swing said in a statement. “These smuggling networks act with virtual impunity, hundreds are dying,” he said, adding: “The world must act.”
Last year, more than 3,200 people died while attempting to reach Italy by boat from North Africa, on what the United Nations has described as the most dangerous route in the world.
IOM warned 2015 could be even deadlier, pointing out that the latest suspected drownings come on top of 115 deaths reported in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year.
That compares to just 27 deaths during the same period last year, IOM said.
Survivors who spoke with the organisation’s staff in Lampedusa on Wednesday described how ruthless smugglers had forced them to board inflatable rafts and set out in raging seas.
“They forced us to climb aboard the ship with guns and sticks, robbing us of all our belongings,” one survivor was quoted as saying by IOM.
The 29 who were found Saturday had died of exposure in horrific conditions in international waters, in what humanitarian organisations said was an avoidable tragedy.
Their small boat was hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with waves up to eight metres (25-feet) high, gale-force winds and torrential rain.
But doctors involved in the rescue operation believe more would have survived if they had been rescued by a large military vessel rather than the small patrol boats that were sent to their aid.
UNHCR reiterated its concern about the lack of a strong search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Europe’s Triton operation, which is run by the European border protection agency Frontex, is not focused on search and rescue and is not providing the necessary tools to cope with the scale of the crises.
“Saving lives should be our top priority. Europe cannot afford to do too little too late,” Cochetel said.
At least 218,000 people, including both migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 and this trend is expected to continue in 2015.