More than 700 people fleeing Africa and the West Asia may have drowned in the latest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, bringing the death toll this year to almost 3,000, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Monday.
In the worst incident, as many as 500 migrants are believed to have died after traffickers rammed their ship off Malta's coast last week, an event that only came to light this weekend in testimony from two of the nine survivors.
The survivors said the traffickers ordered the migrants to change vessels in the middle of the Mediterranean. The migrants refused, leading to a confrontation that ended when traffickers rammed the ship carrying the migrants, IOM spokesperson Christiane Berthiaume told Reuters in Geneva.
"Some 500 people were on board - Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese. They were trying to reach Europe," Berthiaume said."That means that 700 people perished at sea these last days in the Mediterranean, the deadliest incidents in the space of a few days," she said.
"In all, nine people survived and were picked up boats," Berthiaume said. IOM officials interviewed two Palestinian survivors who were taken to Sicily, Italy, while other survivors were taken to Malta and to Crete, Greece, Berthiaume said.
Four days later, another ship packed with up to 250 African emigrants sank off the Libyan coast, and most of them are feared dead, a spokesperson for the Libyan navy said late on Sunday. Some 26 people survived.The UN refugee agency UNHCR said the situation in the Mediterranean was unclear and it was trying to get confirmation of five shipwrecks in all. "At least 500 people have died or are missing in the last three days", UNHCR spokesperson Francis Markus said in an email.
"It was without any doubt the deadliest weekend ever in the Mediterranean," Carlotta Sami of the UNHCR said.
Some 130,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, compared with 60,000 last year, according to the UNHCR. Italy has received more than 118,000, most of them rescued at sea under its naval operation Mare Nostrum.
UN high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres and UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie visited the naval rescue headquarters in Malta on Sunday, meeting survivors, the agency said in a statement issued on Monday.
"Amidst concerns about the sustainability of the Italian Mare Nostrum operation, they also called for increased efforts by European nations to contribute to rescue efforts and reduce deaths at sea," the UNHCR said.Half of those arriving in Europe by boat are refugees from Syria and Eritrea, according to the agency.
"We all need to wake up to the scale of this crisis. There is a direct link between the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere and the rise in deaths at sea in the Mediterranean. We have to understand what drives people to take the fearful step of risking their children's lives on crowded, unsafe vessels; it is the overwhelming desire to find refuge," Jolie said.
"It is also part of a bigger problem - the soaring numbers of people displaced by conflicts around the world today, which now stands at over 51 million. Unless we address the root causes of these conflicts, the numbers of refugees dying or unable to find protection will continue to rise," she said.