ROME (dpa) – More than 330 migrants are feared dead following the most serious string of accidents in the Mediterranean since the start of the year, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Wednesday.
Since Sunday, up to four vessels carrying hundreds of migrants are thought to have run into difficulties while facing stormy weather between the coast of Libya and the island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southern outpost.
Nine survivors arrived in Lampedusa on Wednesday, two days after being picked up from two dinghies. They told authorities that 203 of their peers had died, Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Italy, told dpa.
“There are nine of them and they are safe after four days at sea. The other 203 have been swallowed by the sea,” Sami wrote on Twitter. In another message, she said the youngest victim was a 12-year-old boy.
On Monday, another 106 people were rescued by the Italian coast guard from a third vessel at risk of sinking in stormy seas. However, there were also 29 victims, including 22 migrants who died of hypothermia after being picked up.
The 29 bodies were being transferred from Lampedusa to mainland Sicily for burial in the province of Agrigento, the ANSA news agency reported.
Wednesday’s survivors – who were said to hail from sub-Saharan Africa and to be in fairly good medical conditions after being forced to face rough seas with no water or food – told authorities that a fourth vessel was missing.
“We do not know what happened to the people on board,” Sami wrote on Twitter. She said “at least another 100 migrants and refugees” were unaccounted for.
Human rights groups renewed calls on the European Union to bolster search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean, which were scaled back at the end of last year despite widespread criticism from activists.
Pope Francis – a vocal defender of migrant rights – also commented.
“I wish to assure the victims of my prayers and renew calls for solidarity, so that nobody is denied of necessary rescue,” he said during his weekly audience at the Vatican.
The Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Nils Muiznieks, wrote on Twitter: “Another preventable migration tragedy in the Mediterranean. The EU needs effective search and rescue. Triton does not meet this need.”