GENEVA - Survivors of a vessel smuggling migrants from Libya to Italy last week describe tales of brutality and mass murder during their voyage.
The International Organization for Migration reports the boat started its journey with 750 migrants aboard and arrived with only 569, saying as many as 180 people are believed to have perished.
The voyage concluded Saturday with the Italian navy rescuing hundreds of migrants from the overcrowded smuggler’s boat.
Survivors then recounted tales of horrifying brutality, racism, discrimination and clashes among the different ethnic groups aboard the vessel.
A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, Flavio di Giacomo, has interviewed about 25 survivors in a reception center in Sicily.
He says all are young men between the ages of 18 and 24 from Sub-Saharan Africa, and that all have been traumatized by the ordeal.
According to di Giacomo, the smugglers assigned migrants from Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Morocco places on the two upper decks where they could catch a sea breeze, while migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa were forced into the hold.
“They were forced [into the hold] by smugglers with knives; they were beaten by smugglers and they were cut — I actually saw cuts on their bodies — and to sit in the hold close to the engine .... a situation that is very dangerous, it is very painful because it is hot. There is no air. You can die — as happened, actually. But they had no other choice."
Di Giacomo also said the Africans were beaten back when they tried to go to an upper deck to get fresh air, and that 29 migrants died from heat and asphyxiation after being forced to remain in the hold.
He says witnesses also told him that many of the migrants were kicked and stabbed and about 60 were thrown overboard.
Many of the African migrants aboard the boat were fleeing wars, religious persecution and collapsing economies in places such as Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Ivory Coast and Gambia.
“The smugglers, they are characterized also by very racist behavior toward African migrants ... while the other nationalities had life jackets," he said.
Di Giacomo says the smugglers likely made about $670,000 from this one dangerous voyage. Five have been apprehended and are under investigation on charges of violence and murder.
The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 800 people have died this year alone in the Mediterranean, many of them seeking safety from conflict and civil war. It estimates more than 75,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014.