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500 Migrants Feared Dead in Mediterranean Shipwreck After Smugglers Sink Boat

The tragedy is believed to be the worst to befall refugees making the perilous sea voyage to Europe in recent years.

by Hannah Strange
Sep 16 2014, 6:55pm

Image via Getty

When a boatload of migrants crossing the Mediterranean refused orders to swap into a smaller, rickety vessel, their human smugglers reacted with the most barbarous of cruelties. Ramming their own vessel into the migrant boat over and over, they waited until it sunk completely before abandoning their human cargo to the caprices of the sea.

As they did so, "they were laughing," one survivor said.

This is the story of the shipwreck believed to have killed as many as 500 migrants off the coast of Malta last week, as told to investigators from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Only nine survivors have been pulled from the water, making the tragedy — if reports are confirmed — the largest single loss of life of all the many horrors to befall the Mediterranean's seafaring refugees.

As many as 100 children could be among those lost at sea, according to IOM investigators. 

"If survivors' reports are confirmed, this will be the worst shipwreck of migrants in years, not an accidental tragedy, but the apparent deliberate drowning of migrants by criminal gangs who extort money for their desperate journeys," IOM spokesperson Leonard Doyle said. "Their actions are as callous as they are evil." 

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Survivors interviewed in Crete said they had been at sea for four days after boarding the ship in the Egyptian port of Alexandria, and had already been forced to change vessels three times. On the fourth occasion, eyeing what seemed to be a perilous, unseaworthy boat, the migrants refused. Threats from the traffickers to return them to Egypt were met with defiance. 

Then, according to accounts from four separate survivors, the 10 Palestinian and Egyptian smugglers began shouting and pelting the migrants with sticks. The traffickers began to charge at the migrant boat, at which point some of those onboard jumped into the smaller vessel. They were forced into the water as the smugglers rammed the bigger boat until it disappeared beneath the waves.

"When the boat was first struck, one of the passengers killed himself in despair by hanging," a survivor told the IOM.

The ship had two decks, with 200 people on the upper level and 300 below, according to the survivors. When it began to sink, those who were on the lower deck were trapped and quickly perished. Those who had been flung into the water held on to each other, trying to stay above water, survivors said.

"The rest of us linked arms in a circle so that no one else would be lost," a survivor told IOM. 

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For the first three days in the water, a number of migrants managed to keep afloat. But then, as winds whipped up powerful waves, people started to disappear, the survivors said.

After a merchant ship spotted people in the water, nine survivors, including a 2-year-old, were picked up by search and rescue vessels from Malta and Italy. One has since died and a girl is reportedly in critical condition. 

'The numbers dying off Europe's coasts are shocking and unacceptable. These are women, children, and men who only hope for a more dignified life.'

Two Palestinian survivors who arranged the voyage through a "travel" office in Gaza said they had each paid $2,000 up front for their passage. They said that when the ship's captain did a headcount before departing Alexandria, 400-450 migrants were on board, excluding minors under 10 years old. It is from those numbers that the IOM estimates an additional 100 children may have been among the passengers. 

The migrants were mostly Syrians, Sudanese, Egyptians, and Palestinians, survivors said.

The disaster comes as authorities investigate reports that up to 250 people may have been killed in another shipwreck off the Libyan coast this week, adding to a migrant death toll that is approaching 3,000 so far this year and is already almost four times greater than it was in 2013. In recent months, fatalities have risen exponentially. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that 2,200 people have died making the voyage since June alone. 

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Italy, one of the primary destinations for seafaring migrants due to the proximity of islands such as Lampedusa to the North African coastline, has repeatedly sounded the alarm over the growing maritime exodus. More than 130,000 migrants have reached European shores across the Mediterranean so far in 2014 — many scooped out of the water by the Italian and Maltese navies — more than double the 60,000 who arrived in 2013. Fueled by conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, the flood of refugees northward has been aided by chaos in countries such as Libya, where smugglers have taken advantage of the lawlessness to turn it into a key staging point in the journey.

After 366 people drowned in a shipwreck off Lampedusa in October, the Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat, warned that the Mediterranean could become a "cemetery" for migrants desperately seeking sanctuary.

"The numbers dying off Europe's coasts are shocking and unacceptable," IOM Director General William Lacy Swing said. "These are women, children, and men who only hope for a more dignified life. The risks they take reflect their desperation and we cannot keep abandoning them to their fate."

Follow Hannah Strange on Twitter: @hannahkstrange

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