Italian border police have rescued five African migrants who were adrift for days in a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean waters between Libya and Italy. But the few survivors told authorities that dozens of others traveling with them died in their attempt to reach the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
When they left the Libyan coast July 28 on an overcrowded 12 meter rubber dinghy the survivors told authorities the group included about 80 mainly Eritreans, some Ethiopians and a number of Somalis. When the group was rescued by a patrol boat of the Italian Border Police on Thursday, only five were left on board: one woman and four men, two of them minors.
They were apparently the only survivors. According to what survivors told Italian Border Police, the others all perished during the crossing and were thrown overboard one by one, into the Mediterranean, a sea that has come to be known as the "cemetery of immigrants".
Italian Border Police Colonel Riccardo Rocconi said that before any search for bodies could take place it would have to be determined where the dinghy was when the others allegedly went overboard. Officials on the island of Malta said seven bodies had been sighted in Libyan waters this week but were not recovered because they were outside of Maltese waters.
After being rescued, the five migrants were immediately taken to Lampedusa's reception center, directed by Federico Miragliotta.
He says that in consideration of the long journey they have faced, the condition of the migrants is what could be expected for subjects that have been at sea for about three weeks. He said they were exhausted from their trip and have been placed under medical care.
The stories told by those who made it to the remote southern Italian island tell of desperate conditions. Titti was the only woman to have been rescued. She said two of her cousins and a brother had boarded the dinghy with her in the hope of making it to Italy, where they have other relatives.
With tears in her eyes and sun-burns on many parts of her body, she told the media of how she traveled from Eritrea to Libya where she worked in slave-like conditions for several months in a Libyan home.
Then, she said, the traffickers, who she said kept them as prisoners in some warehouses, decided it was time for them to make the crossing and took them to a beach where the rubber dinghy was waiting for them with tanks of petrol.
It was immediately clear, she added, that the petrol was insufficient for the crossing from the Libyan coast to Lampedusa but the people smugglers allegedly dismissed the migrant's complaints.
During the day, Titti said it was like an inferno with the sun and salt water burning their bodies. And at night, she said it was cold and there was nothing to keep them warm. She said they prayed and hoped but all the boats they saw on the way across the Mediterranean failed to come to their rescue.
Seventeen-year-old Hampton, from Eritrea, is another of the survivors. He said during their journey they came across several boats that ignored them. Then a fishing vessel, five days before they were rescued, saw them. He said they were exhausted and had run out of food, water, petrol and their cell phone batteries were dead.
Hampton said he could not believe the behavior of the men on board the fishing vessel. He said they spoke English and all they did was hand them a couple of bottles of water, some bread, and then disappeared.
A United Nations refugee spokeswoman in Italy, Laura Boldrini, expressed horror at the incident, saying it was the first time that a boat carrying migrants had been at sea for so long - more than three weeks. She said "it appears that what is prevailing is fear of providing assistance over the duty of rescuing whoever is found in conditions of difficulty at sea."