The UN refugee agency expressed its shock at new information emerging on the actual scale of the tragedy in the Mediterranean after Monday’s rescue attempts by the Italian Coast Guard. Reports gathered by UNHCR from the Italian Coast Guard and the survivors in Lampedusa now suggest some 300 people are confirmed missing.
They were among migrants and refugees mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa who had left the coast of Libya in four dinghies.
“This is a tragedy on an enormous scale and a stark reminder that more lives could be lost if those seeking safety are left at the mercy of the sea. Saving lives should be our top priority. Europe cannot afford to do too little too late,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Europe Bureau Director.
Initial reports had suggested some 29 refugees and migrants died on Sunday on one dinghy. More than 110 survivors have landed in Lampedusa, after being rescued by Italian coastguards and a merchant vessel. They confirmed to UNHCR that they had left on Saturday from Libya on rubber dinghies and had been at sea for days, without food and water.
Only two out of 107 passengers survived on the second dinghy, and 7 out of 109 people on the third one. The fourth one was reported to UNHCR by survivors, which is still missing. The youngest of the missing was a 12 year old boy.
UNHCR has warned that Europe’s Triton operation, which is run by the European border protection agency Frontex, is not focused on search and rescue and is not providing the necessary tools to cope with the scale of the crises. Saving lives must be a priority for the European Union, UNHCR says.
The Mayor of the Italian island of Lampedusa Giusi Nicolini also blamed the termination of the Mare Nostrum project for the deaths of the migrants found on the dinghies. The project ban disallowed Italy’s Navy ships from participating in search-and-rescue missions and from keeping large numbers of migrants on board.
”The small patrol boats were completely swallowed by the waves during the trip back. If Mare Nostrum were still going, the migrants would have been given shelter inside a large ship within an hour,” Nicolini told Reuters.
At least 218,000 people, including both migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 and this trend is expected to continue in 2015.