Year’s death toll for migrants in Mediterranean at 1727, says agency – Los Angeles Times

The death toll among migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean into Europe so far in 2015 has reached an estimated 1,727 — more than 30 times last year’s total at this time, the International Office on Migration said Tuesday.

The new calculation from the Geneva-based inter-government group comes after more than 700 migrants were reported lost this last weekend when the fishing craft ferrying them capsized in the waters between Italy and Libya.

Some estimates put the number killed at more than 800. Many of those who perished were trapped in a lower deck and had no chance to escape, authorities said. Most were believed to be sub-Saharan Africans.

The staggering weekend death toll is the highest reported to date in a single incident and has prompted calls for a new migrant strategy from European leaders. Many expect officials to institute a stepped-up search and rescue effort in the Mediterranean as the spring and summer seasons probably bring a new wave of refugees.

In a statement, the International Office of Migration said that last year’s estimated death total — 3,279 migrants — could be surpassed this year in a matter of weeks. As of April 21, 2014, the group noted, only 56 deaths of migrants had been reported in the Mediterranean, compared to the 1,727 total so far this year, including last weekend’s deaths aboard the fishing craft.

The doomed craft, which launched from the Libyan coast, is believed to have teetered as passengers on board the rickety vessel shifted at a moment when a cargo ship approached to rescue the migrants, authorities said.

Few migrant boats leaving Libya make it to the Italian coast, officials and monitors say. Instead, the aim of many migrants is to be rescued at sea while aboard smuggling boats and be taken to Italy, the first entry point to Europe and a new life. The process likely encourages smugglers to invest only a minimum in making their craft seaworthy, experts note, since the boats are making a one-way trip.

The smuggling business is extremely profitable, with thousands of potential clients waiting in staging areas in Libya and elsewhere to be taken to Europe, authorities say.

Smuggling migrants from Libya since the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Kadafi, whose government had vigorously worked with Italian authorities to lessen the flow. An aerial bombing campaign by U.S. and European warplanes in 2011 helped opposition forces seize power. Libya has since experienced political turmoil and the rise of Islamist militias.

Late Monday, Italian authorities said they had arrested the captain and a crewman of the smuggling ship that carried the more than 700 killed, including scores of women and children, who died over the weekend. The two suspects — a Tunisian described as the captain and a Syrian said to have been a crew member — were among the 28 known survivors brought to Italy. Only 24 bodies have been found to date, authorities said.

The pair are being held in Sicily on suspicion of a number of charges, including multiple counts of murder and people smuggling, authorities said

New accounts have been emerging about the doomed craft and the frantic rescue effort, which unfolded late Saturday and in the early morning hours of Sunday.

The few survivors plucked from the sea “didn’t understand if they were dead or alive,” Gianluigi Bove, the captain of an Italian coast guard ship involved in the rescue, told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper. “They didn’t understand if they had survived, or were like those corpses laid out in front of them,” the captain said, referring to the remains of the dead who also shared deck space on the coast guard vessel responding to the scene.

Even as the tragedy drew international attention, the steady flow of rickety boats headed toward Europe continued.

On Monday, the Italian Coast Guard picked up 638 migrants from six inflatable dinghies in the Mediterranean, authorities said. On Tuesday, another 446 migrants were taken off a boat 80 nautical miles southeast of the Italian region of Calabria as the craft took on water.

Kington is a special correspondent.

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