Three deadly Mediterranean shipwrecks that claimed the lives of hundreds of would-be asylum-seekers fleeing war and repression sharpened calls on Saturday for humanitarian corridors to allow safe passage to Europe.
At least 34 people drowned in Maltese waters south of the Italian island of Lampedusa when a boat packed with hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians capsized on Friday, the same day another 12 migrants died in a shipwreck off of Egypt.
Those tragedies came just eight days after at least 339 Eritreans died when their boat sank within sight of Lampedusa, in one of the worst verified migrant sea tragedies on the Mediterranean.
Facing unrest and persecution in Africa and West Asia, many migrants think the Lampedusa escape route to Europe, barely 113 kmfrom northern Africa, is worth the risk.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres expressed concern that Syrians fleeing conflict have sought to reach Europe by such a perilous route, calling it “inhumane”.
“They escaped bullets and bombs only to perish before they could ever claim asylum,” he said, adding that there had been reports that the vessel had been fired on shortly after departing Zwara, Libya.
A joint Italian-Malta operation rescued nearly 200 people after the Italian Coast Guard received a distress call via satellite phone from the boat and a Maltese aircraft sighted the capsized boat with numerous people in the water. At least 34 people died, while 143 survivors were brought to Malta.
The U.N. refugee agency said survivors claim up to 400 people were on board.
Other survivors, 56 in all, who were not in immediate need of medical attention were heading to Sicily on board an Italian frigate.
“The flows have never stopped, especially over the summer months,” an Italian naval spokesperson said. “The two accidents in such a short period have raised the attention of the public, but the tensions have been going on all summer.”
Some 30,100 migrants arrived in Italy and Malta in the first nine months of 2013, compared with 15,000 in all of 2012, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Most are characterised as asylum seekers, fleeing civil war in Syria or repression and mandatory conscription in Eritrea, unlike the waves of economic migrants a decade ago.
Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the new waves of Syrians, on top of arrivals of Eritreans and Somalis, make it more urgent for Europe to agree on a coordinated policy.