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700 people feared dead in Mediterranean migrant shipwreck

The UNHCR said only 28 people survived a boat capsizing off the coast of Malta
Rescuers of the MOAS's ship Phoenix (in front), helping refugees to climb on their boat (AFP)

Seven hundred people are feared to have drowned when a fishing boat carrying migrants to Europe capsized off Libya, the UN's refugee agency said on Sunday, in what could be the deadliest Mediterranean migrant disaster yet.

Only 28 people survived the capsize, UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told the Skytg24 news channel in Italy. The survivors indicated there had been more than 700 on board, she said.

The Maltese navy put the numbers on board at around 650 and said an alert had come in around midnight (2200 GMT) on Saturday.

"We have deployed our assets along with others from Italy and we are assisting in the rescue operation," a Maltese navy spokesman told AFP Sunday without giving any other details.

On Sunday morning the search for survivors was ongoing, with Italian and Maltese ships all involved in the rescue mission.

A spokesperson for the Italian coastguard told the BBC that while they were still trying to rescue survivors “in time it will be a search [for bodies] only”.

The Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, told local media rescuers the scale of the tragedy may be unprecedented.

"They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water. This could possibly be the biggest tragedy to have ever taken place in the Mediterranean," Muscat said at a political meeting.

"Children, men, and women have died." 

The boat went down about 60 miles (96 km) off the Libyan coast and 120 miles (193 km) south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The disaster comes after a week in which two other shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead. More than 11,000 other would-be immigrants to Europe have been rescued by Italy's coastguard and other boats.

Aid organisations have called for a concerted international effort to put better search-and-rescue systems in place and for action to stem the unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers and migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa seeking to reach Europe.

The European Union responded to the incident by calling an emergency meeting of ministers to discuss the latest "unacceptable" tragedy.

The European Commission said the meeting would involve foreign and interior ministers from the 28-member bloc, but gave no date.

"The reality is stark and our actions must therefore be bold. These are human lives at stake, and the European Union as a whole has a moral and humanitarian obligation to act," it said in a statement.

The Commission said it is consulting with member states, European agencies and international organisations to prepare a new European migration strategy, which it would adopt in mid-May.

"What we need is immediate actions to prevent further loss of life as well as a comprehensive approach to managing migration better in all its aspects." 

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini described the wave of migrant boat sinkings in the Mediterranean as "unacceptable".

"We have said too many times 'never again'. Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay," she said in a statement.

Mogherini said the crisis would be discussed on Monday at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, where she would present a set of proposals to Libya, one of the main trafficking routes.

"We need to save human lives all together, as all together we need to protect our borders and to fight the trafficking of human beings," she said, urging that the task be shared and not "left only to the southern countries".