Hundreds of African migrants are dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea, after a disabled boat carrying an estimated 500 people to a hoped-for better life in Europe caught fire and sank off an Italian island.
The Italian state news agency ANSA said the boat, carrying Eritrean and Somali asylum seekers, went down in flames early Wednesday after migrants tried to send a distress signal by lighting a blanket on fire. Witnesses said the fire inadvertently ignited leaking fuel.
Hours later, television footage showed bodies recovered by Coast Guard rescuers laid out along a sea wall in the port of Lampedusa. Rescue efforts continued into Thursday evening, with estimates of 300 people dead or missing. ANSA reported 150 survivors.
The disaster, described as one of Italy's worst migrant maritime tragedies, came just days after 13 would-be migrants drowned off the coast of nearby Sicily after their boat sank and they tried to swim to shore.
Lampedusa, an island closer to continental Africa than to the Italian mainland, is often the destination for boats full of migrants seeking entrance to the European Union.
The United Nations refugee agency says the boat originated in Libya.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres expressed "shock" about the boat tragedy. He also expressed dismay at what he called a "rising global phenomenon" of people fleeing conflict or persecution only to perish at sea.
The blog Fortress Europe, which tallies migrant deaths, says more than 6,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Africa, have died in the Sicilian Channel since 1994.
This was the largest in a series of similar incidents this year. There was a second rescue operation on Thursday involving two smaller migrant boats off the coast of Sicily, and 13 migrants died when their boat ran aground off Sicily on Monday.
From Amnesty International, Jezerca Tigani said this latest incident is a “grim reminder” of the plight of people from Africa and the Middle East who are willing to risk their lives, and their children’s lives, to escape poverty and turmoil.
Three times as many illegal African migrants have arrived in Italy this year, compared to last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The country’s southern islands are an attractive, but dangerous, destination for migrants because of their proximity to the African coast.
“These are countries clearly in turmoil," said Tigani. "People are trying to get out of their trouble. They’re trying to save their families.”
Tigani added the migrants seek both safety and economic opportunity. She accused European countries of hypocrisy for expressing concern about people in poverty and conflict zones, but allowing only a few thousand to come to the continent legally. Tigani called for action to address the reasons people are willing to take the often deadly trips across the Mediterranean.
“We have to go into questions of where the aid is going, how the aid is being used in these countries, how much employment opportunities there are," she said. "Then we need to talk about proper democracy and rule of law and etcetera, etcetera," she said.
In Rome, Pope Francis described these latest deaths are a “tragedy” and a “shame,” and he called for renewed efforts to prevent similar incidents in the future.
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