More than 300 migrants are missing in the Mediterranean after the motorboats they were traveling in sank, the UN refugee agency says.
Children as young as 12 were said to be among those lost at sea following the shipwreck, which has fueled criticism of Europe's new maritime patrol operation as grossly inadequate.
Carlotta Sami, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson in Italy, called the incident a "horrible and enormous tragedy."
Speaking to VICE News, Sami said four dinghies had come from Libya, leaving from a small town close to Tripoli on Saturday at 7 pm. The boats were poorly constructed, with engines too small for their sizes, and no food and water were provided to the migrants. According to Sami, the Italian Coast Guard was informed of the sinking at 12.50 pm on Sunday, but severe sea conditions prevented it from reaching the boats until Sunday night. The Coast Guard rescued one boat, while a merchant ship saved two other dinghies.
Survivors reported the presence of a fourth dinghy, which is still missing. "Boats are labeled with sequential numbers and dinghy number 4 was rescued. This proves that a fourth boat exists," said Mrs Sami.
"The Italian Coast Guard is searching for a fourth dinghy, but there are no news at the moment," said Barbara Molinario, a UNHCR public information officer in Rome. "It would be a miracle to find it at this stage of the searches," she added.
Molinario told VICE News that seventy-five people survived on the first dinghy, while only seven survivors were found on the second dinghy and two on the third one. She said that each dinghy had been carrying more than 100 migrants and refugees.
The youngest person missing is a 12-year-old boy, survivors reported to the UNHCR's officer.
"We spoke to a group of men that survived the tragedy," added Molinario. "They all come from Senegal, Gambia, or the Ivory Coast. They are still too traumatized to share their experience."
Lauren Jolles, UNHCR officer for Southern Europe, criticised Operation Triton — Europe's Mediterranean border patrol — for lacking a "core mandate" of saving human lives.
"We are shocked by the news of the death of another 203 migrants and refugees," she said in a statement.
She added: "The Operation Triton does not have as its core mandate of saving human lives and therefore can not be the answer of which is urgently needed."
Sami concurred with Jolles's statement. "Triton is concerned with monitoring the Mediterranean. It does not have the appropriate equipment for search and rescue, while Mare Nostrum used military boats and submarines and always cooperated with police and health offices," she told VICE News, highlighting the need of a European rescue operation.
Triton was brought into replace Operation Mare Nostrum, the Italian government's program of maritime patrols, which ended last year to warnings from refugee experts that the death toll could soar. The EU operation, run by the bloc's border agency Frontex, covers a much reduced search area and is mandated with border surveillance rather than search and rescue. Furthermore, the funds dedicated to Triton are a third of those available to Mare Nostrum, whose monthly budget was 9.5 million euros ($10.7m) against Triton's 2.9 million.
Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies of Italy and former UNHCR spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter that the sinking was one of the negative consequences of the end of Operation Mare Nostrum.
Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, also denounced Triton's inadequacy, saying the loss of life could have been avoided.
The Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, criticized by many for his decision to cancel Operation Mare Nostrum, has not commented on the events yet.
The news comes just days after 29 migrants died after their inflatable raft capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Twenty-two of those died from hypothermia after being picked up by a rescue vessel.
Pope Francis said on Wednesday morning that he is following any updates on the events and praying for the victims. The pope, who visited Lampedusa for the first time in July 2013, denounced the migrants' conditions during a speech at the European Parliament in November 2014.
"We cannot allow the Mediterranean Sea to become a cemetery," he said at the time. "The challenge for the EU is to find a solution to this problem that protects European citizens and encourages the acceptance of migrants at the same time." The pontiff also emphasized the need for EU member states to support each other in the implementation of policies that do not hurt migrants' dignity.
At least 218,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in 2014, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, compared with 60,000 for the whole of 2013. The UNHCR said in a statement that this trend is expected to continue in 2015. Almost half of the 2014 migrants were Syrians and Eritreans.
At least 3,000 died or went missing at sea in 2014, according to UNCHR estimates, compared to over 600 in 2013.
Main image: Migrants are picked up by an Italian navy patrol in December. Image via the Italian navy.