Fears of more migrant tragedies as Mediterranean turns into mass grave

Friday 17/04/2015
Mediterranean\'s deadliest migrant boat disaster

GENEVA - More than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of the year -- more than 30 times higher than during the same period of 2014, the International Organization for Migration said Tuesday.

"IOM calculates the 2015 death toll now is more than 30 times last year's total at this date... when just 56 deaths of migrants had been reported on the Mediterranean," spokesman Joel Millman told reporters in Geneva.

"IOM now fears the 2014 total of 3,279 migrant (deaths) on the Mediterranean may be surpassed this year in a matter of weeks, and could well top 30,000 by the end of the year, based on the current death toll," he said.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards meanwhile said Sunday's migrant boat tragedy off Libya in which 800 people died was "the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean we have ever recorded."

Edwards said there had been 1,300 deaths in April alone, making it the deadliest month on record.

French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday called for Europe "to go much further" in tackling the migrant crisis after the series of deadly disasters.

"The European summit on Thursday cannot be an ordinary summit where we take ordinary decisions. We must go much further... and tackle these questions which have become intolerable," he said.

Italian authorities said that the Mediterranean's deadliest migrant boat disaster had been caused by a combination of mistakes by the captain and the ship being impossibly overcrowded.

Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania said the boat had collided with a Portuguese container ship just before it capsized but absolved the crew of the merchant vessel of any responsibility for the tragedy.

They said the boat had keeled over after the collision which had been caused by steering mistakes by the captain and the panicked movements of the hundreds of migrants packed onto the 20-metre (66-foot) former fishing trawler.

The captain was named as Tunisian Mohammed Ali Malek, 27. He has been arrested on suspicion of multiple murder, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration.

Crew member and Syrian national Mahmud Bikhit, 25, has also been arrested, on suspicion of aiding illegal immigration.

The prosecutors said they would be asking a judge later Tuesday to authorise the two men's extended detention in custody pending further investigation and possible formal charges.

Only 28 people, including the two arrested men, survived Sunday's disaster in which 800 people are feared to have drowned.

The prosecutors said it was impossible to ascertain the exact death toll but it was clear hundreds had died, including children and many who had been locked below decks.

The UN refugee agency has estimated the toll at 800 based on survivors' initial testimonies. A report from the Portuguese merchant ship's captain estimated that there were 850 people on board, the prosecutors said.

The Italian government has pledged that every effort will be made to salvage what remains of the boat, which the prosecutors said would be vital to the investigation.

"On the basis of what has emerged, no blame can be accorded to the crew of the merchant ship which came to rescue and in no way contributed to the fatal event," the Catania prosecutors said in a statement.