- Britain supported decision to scrap search and rescue operations in Med
- Survivors says 950 migrants on board and 300 locked in the ship’s hold
- Third major shipwreck involving migrants trying to cross sea this week
- Italian PM calls for emergency meeting of EU leaders to discuss crisis
Nick Fagge In Catania, Sicily
Hannah Roberts for MailOnline
02:30 EST, 20 April 2015
03:14 EST, 20 April 2015
Hundreds of terrified migrants including women and children drowned ‘like rats in cages’ on a smuggler boat because they were locked in the hold when it capsized, a survivor revealed today.
More than 900 people are feared dead after the boat overturned in the Mediterranean in the early hours of Sunday in one of the worst maritime disasters since the end of World War Two.
A Italian coast guard ship today brought the bodies of 24 victims to Malta for burial before heading to Sicily with only 28 survivors who were plucked from the sea after the disaster off Libya.
In the wake of the tragedy, politicians and charities attacked EU states for supporting Italy’s controversial decision to stop search and rescue operations last year which they blame for contributing to a such a high number of deaths.
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Italian coastguard personnel in protective clothing carry the body of a dead immigrant off their ship Bruno Gregoretti in Valletta’s Grand Harbour in Malta after a smuggler vessel capsized in the Mediterranean
More than 900 people – including 200 women and up to 50 children – are feared dead after the boat overturned in the one of the worst maritime disasters since the end of World War Two
The coast guard ship Gregoretti dropped off the bodies early Monday and was continuing on to Sicily with 28 survivors of this weekend’s shipwreck near the Libyan coast that may have claimed as many as 900 lives
The infra-red camera shows rescuers trying to locate survivors in the water. It is thought the boat, heading towards Malta, capsized when passengers moved to one side of the vessel which lead it to overturn
A handout picture, provided by Guardia di Finanza, shows a Infra-red camera screen shot during an operation to rescue migrants after the shipwreck close to Sicily. It is not known exactly how many people were on board
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that survivors spoke of ‘haunting experiences.’
One survivor, identified as a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, has put the number of people on board the boat when it capsized at 950, adding that only a handful have been rescued.
‘There were also 200 women and 50 children with us. Many were shut in the hold. They died like rats in a cage,’ he was reported as saying by La Sicilia.
He also told La Repubblica: ‘Me and others survived because we were on the deck, others drowned and many others were prisoners in the hold of the boat because the traffickers closed the portholes to stop them from coming out and they have finished at the bottom of the sea.’
The survivor was flown Sunday by helicopter to Catania, in Sicily, where he was interviewed by prosecutors. He was being treated in a hospital.
The small numbers of survivors make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, ‘surely the boat would have sunk,’ said General Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation.
Rescuers recovered 24 bodies from the sea following the disaster, which took place off Libyan waters, south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, shortly after midnight on Sunday.
The tragedy comes just days after another shipwreck in the area claimed 400 lives.
It is thought both boats capsized after those on board rushed to one side to signal to passing merchant ships.
Mr Muscat said the incident was further evidence that Italy and Malta need more support in dealing with the migrant crisis.
‘A time will come when Europe will be judged harshly for its inaction as it was judged when it had turned a blind eye to genocide’, he said.
‘They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water.’
The Italian Coast Guard (pictured) coordinated the rescue operation, now involving dozens of navy and merchant vessels from Italy and Malta. Just 28 people saved were saved on Sunday by rescuers
Personnel at work in the operations room of the Italian Coast Guard in Rome, who are coordinating efforts to try to find survivors of the tragedy. It is thought to have been one of the worst maritime disasters since WWII
Politicians across the continent are now urging countries to work together to stop future tragedies taking place, as more and more people risk their lives in the hands of people traffickers to come to Europe
More migrants arrive at Pozzallo harbour in Sicily. One of the survivors of the disaster said there were 950 people on board the smuggler boat when it sank, including 300 people who were locked in the ship’s hold
‘This could possibly be the biggest tragedy to have ever taken place in the Mediterranean.’
Foreign ministers have added the issue of migrants to the agenda of a European Union meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.
‘Europe can do more and Europe must do more,’ said Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament.
‘It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility and how little money we provide for rescue missions.’
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the latest incident shows the UK needs to change its stance.
Prime Minister of Italy (right) Matteo Renzi has asked for an extraordinary meeting of EU leaders after the incident. ‘Italy asks not to be left on its own’ he said as he described the trafficking of people as a ‘slave trade’
The warm weather has also tempted tens of thousands of migrants in the past week alone to attempt the crossing. These migrants arrived safely on a boat to Pozzallo, but hundreds have died on smuggler boat
A child is carried by a rescue worker after he arrives with migrants on the boat at the Sicilian harbour of Pozzallo. A survivor said there were around 50 children on the smuggler boat that sank on Sunday morning
‘The British Government must immediately reverse its opposition to EU search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, as the EU needs to restart the rescue as soon as possible’, she said.
‘It is immoral to turn our backs and leave people to drown in order to deter other desperate travellers – and of course it hasn’t worked.
‘Since the operations were cancelled even more people have tried to cross the Mediterranean, and thousands have died.
‘The EU should do the basic, humanitarian thing and rescue those in peril on the sea.’
Last October Britain and other EU nations backed Italy’s decision to scale back the migrant patrol operation, replacing it with a much more limited EU ‘border operation’ plan,
Rescuers say they saw large fuel stains and life jackets floating in the water as they hunted for survivors
This operates within just 30 miles of the coast and does not conduct search and rescue missions,
Italy claimed the presence of rescue ships was encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.
Yet their new policy does not seem to be deterring migrants.
Last week alone 10,000 were rescued by the Italian navy – an unprecedented number.
Charities Amnesty International and Save The Children joined the calls for search and rescue operations to be reinstated.
And Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi said he had asked for an urgent meeting of EU leaders, adding: ‘Italy asks not to be left on its own’.
‘The trafficking of migrants amounted to ‘a new slave trade’. We must all fight against human traffickers that are the slavers of the 21st century, he added.
‘We are not talking about statistics but our brothers and sisters and of human lives.’
Growing numbers of Africans have been setting off on ill-fated voyages to Europe from Libya and the country’s coastlines has become a prime target for people-smugglers.
Saviors: This image released by the Italian Coast Guards today shows rescuers take part in the operation off the coast of Sicily to look for survivors in the wake of the shipwreck
Pope Francis led tributes to the victims of the disaster. He expressed his ‘deepest pain’ at the tragedy and urged the international community to take action to stop migrants dying as they try to reach Europe
The warm weather has also tempted tens of thousands of migrants in the past week alone to attempt the crossing.
The boat in the latest tragedy set off from Libya on Saturday and sent out a distress signal shortly before midnight 120 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The boat initially set off from Egypt and then stopped off on the Libyan coast near the city Zuwarah to pick up more passengers, it reported.
The Coast Guard said there was no immediate way of finding out exactly how many passengers were on the boat or how many might still be rescued, but authorities fear there could have been as many as 950 migrants on board according to Italian news agency ANSA.
General Antonino Iraso of the Italian Guardia Finanza police, which is involved in the rescue attempt, said that if the numbers were confirmed it would be the worst shipping disaster since the Second World War.
A rescuer said one of their first discoveries was the body of a boy, no older than 15, who was discovered face down in a pool of oil.
‘The boy was one of the first that we recovered, face down in a pool of oil’, they said on Sunday.
Italian authorities are organising the rescue mission. It is feared the number of people drowned in the incident could run into the hundreds. Anti-immigration parties in Italy have called for the crossings to be blocked off
Authorities say there is no immediate way of knowing exactly how many people were on board, but it is thought there could have been 700 migrants. It is possible many of the bodies will never be recovered
Relief workers stand around a group of migrants as they wait to be ‘processed’ at the quayside (stock image). Italian Prime Minister Mattoe Renzi said Europe was seeing ‘systematic slaughter in the Mediterranean’
This is the third major shipwreck involving migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean this week, and a further 400 migrants are feared to have drowned in the other incidents (stock image)
‘We have not found anything since 10am this morning. There’s only oil and debris.’
Given that the sea is as deep as 3 miles (5 kilometres) or more in the area, it is possible that many bodies will never be recovered, as was the case in similar tragedies off the coasts of Libya, Italy, and other Mediterranean nations in recent years.
Pope Francis held a moment of prayer for the victims. He said: ‘A boat packed with migrants capsized 70 miles off the coast of Libya. They fear hundreds of victims.
‘I express my deepest pain in the face of the tragedy. I appeal to the international community to act quickly and decisively to avoid repeating similar tragedies. They are men and women like us, our brothers who search for a better life, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war, searching for a better life, searching for happiness.’
People are spotted clinging to the top of a capsized boat, while others are struggling in the water. It is feared hundreds of migrants have drowned after the vessel toppled, sparking a huge rescue operation
The UN has now called for EU countries to do more, with refugee agency UNHCR spokesman Carlotta Sami urging the creation of a European version of the Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission.
FARAGE: ‘BRITAIN SHOULD ONLY LET IN CHRISTIANS FLEEING LIBYA’
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said the UK should only accept Christian refugees
Nigel Farage today claimed Britain should only accept refugees who are Christian.
The Ukip leader risked being accused of discriminating on the basis of religion, as he suggested living in Libya is now ‘virtually impossible’ for Christians.
He also claimed David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘fanaticism’ in bombing Libya directly caused the problem of migrant tragedies at sea.
Mr Farage said the 2011 military action completely destabilised the north African country and turned it into a place of ‘much savagery’.
The Ukip leader was challenged over whether his anti-EU stance was at odds with the need for a pan-European solution to the crisis of refugees fleeing north Africa.
But he told BBC1’s Sunday Politics: ‘It’s the European response that caused this problem in the first place.
‘The fanaticism of (former French president) Sarkozy and (Prime Minister) Cameron to bomb Libya … what they’ve done is to completely destabilise Libya, to turn it into a country with much savagery, to turn it into a place where for Christians the situation is now virtually impossible. We ought to be honest and say we have directly caused this problem.’
Asked if no migrants attempted to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea before military action in Libya, Mr Farage said:
‘There were no migrants coming across from Libya in these quantities before we bombed the country, got rid of (then Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi – however bad he may have been – and destabilised the whole situation, of that I have no doubt.
‘But I’m the one person who has said that I do think, especially for Christians in that part of the world, they now have almost nowhere to go.
‘I have not got a problem with us offering refugee status to some Christians from those countries.’
She said: ‘We need a European Mare Nostrum to combat the tragedies of the immigrants in the sea. We have asked for one for more than a year and we have not had an answer.
‘If the numbers of the tragedy are confirmed the total number of people who have died in the Mediterranean in the last ten days will be more than 1,000.’
‘Today’s is a tragedy of enormous proportions, a catastrophe on a scale never seen before in the Mediterranean which confirms the necessity of a European intervention to put in place adequate rescue measures.’
‘We are shocked because in the past two days we have seen events of a brutality that we have never seen before. There has been a leap in the cruelty on the part of the traffickers.’
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said ‘the current arrangements are clearly leading to these tragic consequence’.
But he insisted that ‘cure’ lay not at sea but in dealing with the reasons why people are seeking refuge.
Foreign secretary Phillip Hammond said an international ‘co-ordinated response’ was needed, adding: ‘We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys.’
The Home Office declined to comment last night.
The fishing vessel involved in today’s disaster had send out an emergency call after having trouble with steering the vessel, and a Portuguese merchant ship arrived at the scene.
As it approached, dozens of people moved from one side of the vessel to the other, and it capsized, Italian news bureau Ansa reports.
Loris De Filippi of Medecins Sans Frontieres said EU states were culpable for the tragedy. He said: ‘A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea and European policies are responsible.
‘Faced with thousands of desperate people fleeing wars and crises, Europe has closed borders, forcing people in search of protection to risk their lives and die at sea.
He said the number of casualties was comparable to ‘a warzone’.
‘European States must immediately launch large-scale search and rescue operations, with proactive patrolling as close as possible to Libyan shores.
‘The current means are obviously not enough. This tragedy is only just beginning, but it can and should be stopped.’
So far, 10,000 migrants have been rescued by the Italian coast guard, navy and merchant vessels this week – an unprecedented number.
The influx of migrants, mainly from Africa attempting to cross the sea from Libya, is putting pressure on Italy’s shelter system and raising calls for a better response to the emergency.
Italy has arrested 976 traffickers since its search and rescue operations began.
Yesterday, the International Organization for Migration said the rate of migrant and refugee deaths this year is ten times higher than in 2014, even though the number of those who made it across safely is about the same.
The agency put arrivals so far this year in Italy through Thursday at 21,191. That compares with 26,644 for the first four months of last year.
‘This is unacceptable,’ said Federico Soda, director of the IOM coordination office for the Mediterranean, calling for more intensive search and rescue efforts. ‘This is a humanitarian emergency that involves us all.’
Greece, the EU’s second-biggest gateway for migrants after Italy, appealed to its European Union partners Friday for more help in policing its sea borders as immigrants increasingly make dangerous journeys to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.