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Italy May Have Found the Wreckage of the Boat From the Deadliest Migrant Disaster

The Italian navy discovered the wreckage 85 miles off the coast of Libya, but it remains to be seen whether a comprehensive death toll can be finally be established for the disaster.
May 8, 2015, 6:30pm
Photo by Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty Images

Italian authorities may have located the wreckage of the ship involved in the Mediterranean's deadliest known migrant disaster.

A boat estimated to be carrying between 700 and 950 migrants capsized April 19 while attempting to travel from Libya to Italy. According to the UN's refugee agency, only 28 people are known to have survived the shipwreck. Survivors said there were 350 Eritreans on board, as well as people from Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast, and Ethiopia

The suspected wreckage was discovered Thursday around 85 miles north of Libya at a depth of 1,235 feet underwater.

Asked by Reuters whether the correct boat had been located, a spokesman for the Italian navy replied, "Yes… The location and length are correct, but we cannot be certain."

It remains to be seen what evidence can be gleaned from the boat, and whether a comprehensive death toll can be finally established.

Related: Who Would Migrants Vote For? - The British Election

The April tragedy was only one of many involving migrants crossing the Mediterranean, but its scale shocked European leaders and prompted an international outcry. European officials have since promised to triple the budget for Triton, the European Union's search and rescue operation that replaced Mare Nostrum, the Italian-funded program that ended late last year.

The disaster is also the subject of an upcoming criminal case. Mohamed Ali Malek, a 27-year-old Tunisian who was believed to have been the ship's captain, is expected to face prosecution for homicide and serving as an accomplice to clandestine immigration. Mahmud Bikhit, a 25-year-old Syrian, is also expected to face charges.

Four minors were among the migrants who survived the shipwreck. According to the UK NGO Save the Children, a 16-year-old survivor named Said described being held captive for months in Libya after fleeing Somalia the previous summer.

When he arrived at the boat on the night of April 18, Said claimed passengers were beaten while being forced aboard. He also said he overheard smugglers saying they were hoping to cram 1,200 migrants on the ship, though he believed they stopped at around 800.

Hundreds of people were locked below deck when the boat sank, according to testimony from survivors. Only 24 bodies were initially recovered. The corpses were later brought to Malta.

Related: More Migrant Deaths Reported a Day After 700 Are Feared Drowned in Mediterranean 'Mass Cemetery'

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told VICE News in the week after the disaster that "the European asylum system is dysfunctional."

"Depending on where you arrive you might have a very sophisticated asylum system where you will get strong attention and good protection and a chance to restart your life," Fleming said. "If you land in another country, you might end up in a jail, a detention center, on the streets, in work conditions sometimes worse than what you fled from. So this has to be changed.

"Every few months we're saying this was the greatest ever disaster but nothing happens," Fleming added. "Now we have reached maybe 850 people dying in a single boat. If this is not the wake-up call for Europe to turn around and assume their responsibilities than I don't know what is."

_Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: _@sallyhayd