While refugees and migrants seeking respite from violence and poverty have long used the dangerous passage across the Mediterranean from North Africa to southern Europe, the past several months have seen a surge in sea crossings and migrant deaths. In one of the most brutal incidents yet, nearly 100 Syrian refugees from a single overcrowded ship were killed — stabbed, drowned, and asphyxiated — while attempting to enter Italy from Libya.
According to survivors, all hell broke loose in the middle of the journey when passengers in the cargo hold, severely cramped and unable to breathe from the motor fumes, attempted to come on deck, some arguing that the ship should return to Libya. Five men then allegedly began indiscriminately stabbing passengers and throwing them overboard. All told, 30 died from asphyxiating while kept in the ship’s hold, and approximately 60 more drowned after allegedly being thrown from the boat.
The five men accused of murdering their fellow passengers are being held by Italian police, as are three charged with smuggling the refugees, according to Reuters.
Over 64,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since January, compared to about 20,000 intercepted in 2013, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Though many of the migrants are Syrians fleeing the war, there are also considerable numbers of Eritreans, Somalis, Iraqis, and others trying to enter Europe by sea.
The death toll from the past six months reached 500 at the beginning of July, compared to 700 last year, according to UNHCR.
However, the number could be much higher.
“One of the difficulties for anyone that’s trying to quantify this is when rickety vessels are lost at sea, when people drown, unfortunately, I think there are some number of people who die and it’s never recorded, and it’s never known just how many people die at sea,” Bill Frelick, director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) refugee program, told VICE News.
Foreseeing a huge number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean in the summer months, UNHCR urged the UN in early June to establish holding centers in North Africa and the Middle East to help prevent dangerous border crossings.
"We would not be totally against external processing if certain safeguards were in place: the right to appeal, fair process, the right to remain while appeals take place,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's European director.
UNHCR and other organizations have also urged Europe — which has taken in four percent of the nearly three million Syrian refugees who have requested asylum — to adopt policies aimed to prevent refugee deaths and increase the number of those offered asylum. More than half of those offered asylum have gone to Sweden or Germany.
Tensions have grown in the European Union as Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and others in the southwest of the continent feel that they’ve had to bear the migrant burden without the help of northern member states.
And while crossing the Mediterranean isn’t the only way for Syrians and others to cross into Europe, it’s become increasingly common as Greece and Bulgaria have pushed back against migrants trying to enter through Turkey, says Frelick. Syrian refugees also face inhuman conditions while traveling through the Sahara Desert to reach Libya, and HRW has documented instances in which migrants have been forced to drink water mixed with gasoline.
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