The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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Italy probes migrant boat disaster that left 41 feared dead, four survivors tell harrowing tale

Associated Press Friday, 11 August 2023, 07:16 Last update: about 11 months ago

An Italian prosecutor investigating last week's capsizing that left 41 migrants feared dead in the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday denounced Tunisia-based smugglers who launch boats so badly built that they quickly take on water, overturn or break apart.

The capsizing earlier this week was the latest in a string of similar recent tragedies that have killed dozens of people who entrusted themselves to smugglers based on Tunisia's shores to reach Italy in hopes of finding a better life.

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Four young migrants who were rescued by a passing merchant ship following the Aug. 4 capsizing told doctors and police on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa where they were brought on Wednesday that they survived by clinging to air tubes for hours.

They and a few other survivors spotted an empty boat and struggled to reach it. But only the four of them made it to the boat and climbed aboard — only to find the iron-hulled, open-topped vessel had no engine.

State TV reported that the migrants then survived for about four days on four bottles of drinking water and a half-package of crackers they found in the boat. A Malta-flagged ship rescued them, and an Italian Coast Guard vessel took them to Lampedusa.

The survivors said 41 fellow passengers, including three children, set out with them from the port of Sfax, Tunisia, on Aug. 3. Waves as high as 4 meters (13 feet) swamped the smugglers' boats the next day, they said.

The others were missing, and presumably died.

“Their story is plausible,'' said Chief Prosecutor Salvatore Vella, based in Agrigento, Sicily. "We know that the smugglers launch these boats of very poor quality with 50 to 70 migrants aboard.''

Sometimes survivors of such shipwrecks include crewmen engaged by the smugglers who then try to pass themselves off as passengers. But in this case, “we can exclude any of the four” had such a role, Vella told The Associated Press over the phone.

The boat the survivors set off in is the type hastily soldered together with pieces of iron by smugglers in Tunisia to keep up with demands by migrants desperate to make the risky journey toward Italy’s shores, Vella said.

“The soldering on these boats is done only at some points, not in a solid line. ... Water gets in,″ Vella added. “They are criminals.”

The fate of who those who might have been on board the empty vessel is not known — though it's not uncommon for smugglers to tow or transfer people between boats in the Mediterranean.

"Often boats are left behind after migrants go aboard a rescue vessel,'' Vella said. “We don't know why there was no engine aboard the boat” found by the survivors, but “these engines are precious, so it's possible someone took it” at sea.

Pope Francis, who since the start of his papacy has repeatedly denounced the loss of life of migrants at sea, said on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Thursday: “Let us not remain indifferent to these tragedies.”

According to an official of the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, a fishing boat was recently seen harassing migrants at sea off Tunisia’s coast, circling around them and asking them for money in exchange for towing them to closer to Lampedusa. The official was not authorized to speak to journalists and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose right-wing government includes an anti-migrant party, had enlisted the European Union's help to forge an accord with Tunisia in a bid to stop the migrant boats in exchange for economic and other aid.

But the number of migrants reaching Italy so far this year is more than double compared to the same period in 2022, with no sign of slowing. Some 1,000 set foot on Lampedusa in the 24 hours ending Thursday morning alone.

On Monday, the charity rescue ship Geo Barents took aboard 49 migrants, including 32 unaccompanied minors, from a smugglers' vessel that had been adrift for days, said Doctors Without Borders, which assists on the ship.

“Imagine them six days adrift without food and only salty seawater to drink,'' Doctors Without Borders tweeted on Thursday.

Survivors said told their rescuers one child disappeared in the sea. Italian authorities assigned the Geo Barents the port of La Spezia, to disembark the migrants, requiring days of sailing to reach the destination in northwestern Italy.

As of Thursday, nearly 94,800 migrants have arrived by sea this year in Italy, either after being rescued by the Italian Coast Guard or private charity ships or by making it unaided, according to Interior Ministry figures.

On Wednesday, Libyan authorities said at least 27 African migrants have died in the country’s western desert near the border with Tunisia.

Later, Tunisia and Libya agreed to take 276 sub-Saharan migrants stranded in the desert near the border post of Ras Jedir to shelters, Tunisian Interior Ministry spokesman Faker Bouzghaya told the AP on Thursday.

“We took charge of a group that was sheltered by the Tunisian Red Crescent and the Libyan side did the same so that the migrants were evacuated from the zone,” he said, adding that Tunisia took in 126 migrants. Libya transferred 150 migrants to shelters in the capital of Tripoli, a local rights group said.

Both countries confirmed later Thursday that the border area had been cleared.

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