Four shipwrecks in five days: Why migrants tragedy keep happening in the Med

This handout photograph taken on August 5, 2023 by Italian Coastguard (Guardia Costeria) and released on August 6, shows a rescue operation that took place south of Lampedusa.
This handout photograph taken on August 5, 2023 by Italian Coastguard (Guardia Costeria) and released on August 6, shows a rescue operation that took place south of Lampedusa. Copyright Italian Coastguard/GUARDIA COSTIERA/AFP
Copyright Italian Coastguard/GUARDIA COSTIERA/AFP
By Giulia Carbonaro
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Forty-one migrants died off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, according to the only four survivors, in the latest shipwrecks reported in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Forty-one migrants died off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa when the boat they were travelling on capsized and sank, survivors told local media on Wednesday morning. Only four of the total 45 passengers aboard survived after being rescued by Italian authorities.

The four, three men and one woman from the Ivory Coast and Guinea, told Italian authorities they had left from Sfax in Tunisia on Thursday last week with 45 people aboard, including 3 children.

They said that the 7-metre boat travelled for about 6 hours before being capsized by a large wave that threw everyone overboard and into the water. Only 15 people had lifebuoys, according to the survivors, but still drowned.

The four said they survived after managing to hop aboard an abandoned vessel in the middle of the sea, likely left behind after transporting migrants. Four days later, they were spotted by Frontex, who alerted Italian authorities.

They were rescued on Tuesday, according to Italian news agency ANSA, days after the shipwreck and at a significant distance from where the boat capsized, at open sea, between Sfax and Lampedusa. Italian officials said they could not find the bodies of those who drowned.

The survivors, still in a state of shock according to Italian media, are now in Lampedusa, which is currently hosting 1,500 migrants inside its facilities thought for 400 people only. While many will soon be transferred, the number of migrants that passed through the island’s shelter since the beginning of June is over 30 thousand people.

The tragedy is only the latest in a long series of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean which authorities seem far from putting an end to.

There have been four shipwrecks alone in the past five days on the route going from Tunisia to Italy, which claimed the lives of an estimated 131 people. Between Saturday and Monday, one boat capsized off the coast of Sfax and two more near Lampedusa.

Italian Coastguard/GUARDIA COSTIERA/AFP
Rescuers helping migrants to board a rescue boat during operations that took place south of Lampedusa on August 6.Italian Coastguard/GUARDIA COSTIERA/AFP

The bodies of 14 migrants were found by authorities, while 76 remain lost at sea but are being counted among the victims. Near Lampedusa, local authorities rescued 43 people from the first shipwreck and 57 from the second, but the rough conditions of the sea complicated the operation.

The Sicilian island was swept off by a strong Mistral wind these past few days which might have contributed to the rough conditions at sea which have led to the boats capsizing.

Tragedies blamed on “indifference”

These incidents are likely to continue happening as the number of migrants attempting the dangerous trip through the Mediterranean to Italy’s coasts has more than doubled this year compared to 2022.

According to Italy’s Interior Ministry, over 93,000 migrants have arrived in the country this year, as of early August, compared to 44,700 in the same period last year. A total of over 1,800 people have died this year alone trying to cross the sea between North Africa and Europe.

In Italy, the tragedies fuel the political debate surrounding the government’s actions against illegal migration. Raffaella Paita, a senator from the centre, liberal party Italia Viva, called the shipwrecks in Lampedusa “a new Cutro”, referring to the deaths of 94 migrants off the coast of the southern region of Calabria in April.

“The sea killed them, but more than that it was indifference that killed them,” she wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Europe and the government should not turn away from this: we have a moral duty to stop what’s really a massacre.”

“Yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean due to the immobilism of the Italian government,” wrote on X Pierfrancesco Majorino of the centre-left party Partito Democratico (PD). “We’d need a European-wide rescue mission and a real plan to share the responsibility of hosting migrants. Instead, we’re at the level of empty rhetoric and inhuman deals with dictators.”

Last month, Italy finalised a deal with Tunisia - that also covers other issues like the green energy transition, trade, and investment - to curb migrant departures from the North African country.

But many observers of the country have condemned Tunisia’s President Kais Saied’s recent political crackdown on dissent, saying his leadership has taken an authoritarian direction.

Saied’s recent racist attacks against sub-Saharan Africans in the country - whom he has accused of trying to change the demographic makeup of Tunisia - are likely to have caused a surge in the number of people willing to leave Tunisia.

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According to a recent survey by the Observatoire National de la Migration, 65% of Tunisians say they’re willing to leave the country at whatever cost. Among those under 30, the percentage goes up to 90%.

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