SIENA, Italy — At least 700 migrants are believed to have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy from Libya over the past week, the U.N. refugee agency said on Sunday.
The deaths occurred as the smuggling route from Libya has risen with the arrival of spring.
“Surely this was a very intense and exceptional week for the number of fatalities,” said Federico Fossi, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
After listening to the accounts of survivors who reached Italian ports, the agency concluded that about 550 migrants drowned when their flimsy and unseaworthy boat capsized Thursday morning, a few hours after it had been towed by a larger smuggling boat. The vessel, which had about 670 people, had no engine. Twenty-five people made it to the larger boat and survived, 79 were rescued by other vessels, and 15 bodies were later recovered.
In addition, at least 100 people were believed to be missing after another wreck on Wednesday, when a crammed wooden fishing boat capsized within sight of an Italian navy vessel. The navy later released video footage of the wreck. Five bodies were retrieved, and dozens of survivors were taken to Sicily.
On Friday, the navy rescued another 135 migrants and recovered 45 bodies from a sinking smuggling boat on its way to Italy from Libya.
“It’s impossible to indicate a precise number; survivors recounted victims at every landing,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman for the charity Save the Children. “This week was a massacre.”
Humanitarian agencies were still collecting testimonies on the last wreck. “We fear that that number is going to grow,” Fossi said. “And surely many of those victims will be women and children, as usual.”
Although the number of migrants making the treacherous crossing have been roughly in line with those of 2015, about 14,000 have been rescued since May 23 in the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations. One day, more than 4,000 migrants were rescued at sea by an Italian-led rescue operation. Those migrants primarily came from Eritrea, sub-Saharan and West Africa.
“We hadn’t seen such an intense week for a long time,” said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. “Lately, we had seen rubber dinghies departing from Libya, not more capacious steel or wooden fishing boats we saw this week.”
Italian media repeatedly broadcast videos and pictures of sinking boats, as well as men, women and children wrapped in thermal blankets. In one striking image, a rescue official held a 9-month-old girl who had lost her pregnant mother. On Saturday at the Vatican, Pope Francis showed a gathering of children a life jacket used by a Syrian girl who died while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.
“Migrants are not a danger, they are in danger,” Francis told his young audience.
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