Hundreds More Die at Sea Fleeing North Africa for Europe

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Vincenzo Tersigni / Eidon / Reuters

Refugees from north Africa are helped by Italian Guardia di Finanza officers as they arrive at the southern Italian island of Lampedusa April 6, 2011.

Of the more than 200 people who packed themselves onto a 40-foot boat for a dangerous journey out of Libya and across the Mediterranean earlier this week, only 51 are alive today. The rest are gone, swept into icy waters after their boat capsized during a rescue operation early Wednesday morning. The death toll is possibly the single biggest loss of life since unrest in North Africa drove thousands of migrants to flee to Europe. But it represents only a fraction of those who have died since the crossings began. Like the tip of an iceberg, Wednesday's tragedy, which took place not far from the Italian island of Lampedusa, points to a larger problem looming underneath.

For every 25 migrants who have arrived safely in Europe, it's likely that one didn't make it, according to figures from advocacy group the Italian Refugee Council. Crammed onto treacherously overcrowded boats that are barely seaworthy, the passengers are given little or no food or water before being pushed off — without a compass to guide them — and pointed towards Europe. Even before this latest accident, at least 480 people have died or been lost at sea since the uprisings in Tunisia and Libya began, releasing a flood of migrants who are either taking advantage of dropped emigration barriers or fleeing the fighting and feared economic chaos. "Sadly, this number is the minimum," says Christopher Hein, president of the Italian Refugee Council. "It includes only the ones we know about." The number of lives lost in any given shipwreck or accident range from a few individuals to dozens at a time. The number of those lost in Wednesday's accident — most of them sub-Saharan Africans — may have topped 250.

In addition, another ship with 335 people on board has been missing since March 23. On Tuesday, family members in Libya began reporting that they had found bodies from the ship. They were riddled with bullets, leading rights group to believe that the passengers were subject to a massacre. "It's clear that there was an assault," says Roberto Malini, co-president of the activist EveryOne Group, which along with an Eritrean priest broke news of the suspected killings. "What we don't know is who did it." The ship had last been heard from by satellite phone shortly after it left Libya. Its passengers, including women and children, were unarmed.

Perversely, the problem of dangerous sea crossings from Libya to Europe has been made worse by earlier attempts to rein in illegal immigration. With Libya's smuggling networks largely broken by months of European-funded immigration efforts, embarkations are haphazard and often ill-planned. Boats leave heavily laden, and many depart even without a satellite phone to use when trouble arises. Tragically, some of the dead may include those who have made the crossing before, only to be intercepted by an Italian program, in which migrants were stopped at sea and returned to Libya. "We can't exclude [the possibility] that those who died included people who were sent back before," says Hein.

The rapidly rising death toll — including Wednesday's shipwreck and the suspected massacre, the number of those lost since the Arab spring began comes to roughly 1,000 — has led to calls for Italy and other European countries to increase efforts to ensure the safety of those crossing the Mediterranean. The EveryOne group has called for Italian authorities to increase the number of rescue patrols and helicopter flights over the treacherous waters. "In this moment of emergency, we can't abandon these desperate people to hunger and war," says Cristiana Muscardini, an Italian deputy in the European Parliament. On Wednesday, she called for greater European involvement in rescue operations and an investigation into the alleged massacre. "We want to know who did it," she says.

The Italian Council of Refugees has called on Europe to provide temporary permits for fleeing Tunisians to enter legally, and for the evacuation of Libya's remaining sub-Saharan African population, to help them make the crossing sagely before they decide to take to the sea themselves. Comprised mostly of those who have fled their countries of origin, many face persecution should they return. And with Libya increasingly dangerous, Europe is their only safe destination, even if it means risking death to get there.

"Europe may not have a legal responsibility, but it has a humanitarian responsibly to ensure that these people are not forced to cross over in this risky way," says Hein of the Italian Refugee Council. There's no question Europe has the ability to do something to stop the dying. But with countries like France and Italy reluctant to take in the new arrivals, the question is whether it will.