UN fears at least 700, mostly Africans, drowned in Mediterranean in past week

Shipwreck on the Mediterranean Sea Source: AAP

The United Nations refugee agency fears at least 700 people have drowned over the past few days in a series of shipwrecks off the Libyan coast.Gareth Boreham reports.

The UNHCR believes as many as 15,000 asylum-seekers and migrants have tried to make the perilous central Mediterranean crossing in a week.

Even in the tragic context of the ongoing migrant crisis, the latest figures on the human cost are staggering.

Spring weather has led to a surge in the number of people trying to make the journey from Africa to Europe.

And UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami says three shipwrecks in the past week have claimed hundreds of lives.

"We heard that at least seven hundred people may have died and gone missing. Several bodies have been recovered out of three shipewrecks that have happened on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday but then there were other incidents, like for example, four women have died on a boat because of suffocation and burns and we have an orphan of nine months only and several other people have fallen off the boat. It's the new normal. It's awful."

This Eritrean shipwreck survivor has recounted his ordeal.

"It was very hard because the water was coming from everywhere, from down and from up. We tried for more than six hours. And then we we said it was not possible any more. We tried to save all the people. That was not possible. All the children, some were already dead, some jumped in the water. Some swam. The situation was out of control."

The UN refugee agency has praised the Italian navy for its rescue efforts.

UNHCR senior communications officer William Spindler estimates 14,000 people have been plucked from the sea in the past week alone.

"So far 200,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean this year and in the case of Italy some 40,000 have arrived since the beginning of the year and before this latest tragedy about 1,700 have already been reported dead or missing."

Lieutenant Raffaele Martino is commmander of the Italian ship Vega, which arrived in port carrying survivors and the bodies of drowining victims.

"After we had finished picking up the survivors of the shipwreck, we began searching for and localising the bodies and recovering them from the water. At the end of the search and recovery operations we had picked up 45 bodies: 36 of them were women, six men and three children."

Three vessels carrying migrants already are confirmed to have sunk or capsized in the past week.

But there's also the possiblity a fourth boat sank as well.

Giovanna Di Benedetto, from the charity Save the Children, says a smaller vessel from Libya - with about 400 people on board - was being towed by another when it started to take on water.

"Some people managed to jump in the water and reach the larger boat and some were even able to climb up the tow line, a very few people. The tow line was then cut and the smaller boat sank. It seems that many women and also many children were on that boat. This would be the fourth tragedy at sea in the course of just one week."

Police have detained the captain of the larger stricken boat amid reports many on board had been beaten and raped.

The UNHCR's Carlotta Sami said there was evidence of desperate people being forced on to rickety vessels that were never going to survive the journey.

"And the smugglers, ... survivors told us the smugglers literally pushed them out at high sea and they found themselves in completely unseaworthy ships and boats that simply got submerged."

And while the vessels left from Libya, the nationalities of the arrivals highlight the extent of the crisis, most coming from as far as Sudan, Nigeria and Eritrea.


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