IOM Calls for International Investigation of Mediterranean Shipwreck Deaths
Italy - IOM today (8/5) has called for an “international investigation” of recent Mediterranean shipwrecks in light of Thursday’s discovery of a sunken vessel believed to hold the remains of hundreds of victims, who drowned last month.
Italian authorities reported last night that a nautical robot probed a damaged vessel discovered at a depth of 375 meters, some 85 nautical miles northeast of Libya’s coastline. Authorities believe this is the same craft lost on April 18, with as many as 800 passengers on board, according to 28 survivors later evacuated to Italy.
The shipwreck, 25 meters in length, appears in high resolution sonar images rendered by the robot probe to have a hull damaged by a larger ship - possibly one involved in the initial rescue. There are unconfirmed reports that at least one body was discovered during the probe, and that others may be visible inside the sunken vessel.
“This news confirms our worst fears of how ruthlessly human smugglers behave. If it is true that hundreds of migrants seeking to reach Europe were trapped below decks on a hopelessly unseaworthy vessel, this can only be described as murder, which warrants an international investigation,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing.
At the same time IOM applauds the ongoing Italian prosecuting authorities’ efforts to bring the perpetrators of this and other crimes against migrants to justice.
The discovery Thursday of what may turn out to be the scene of the worst smuggling crime recorded in the Mediterranean comes as new statistics confirm 2015 is proving to be an even deadlier year than 2014, when nearly 3,300 migrants perished trying to enter Europe by sea.
According to data provided by Italy’s Ministry of the Interior, arrivals by sea for the months January through April 2015 were 26,228, a trend generally in line with arrivals for the same period in 2014, when 26,644 migrants were registered.
In May 2015, IOM estimates that arrivals have reached approximately 8,270, bringing the total number of arriving migrants as of May 7 to approximately 34,570.
What is striking about the data IOM has gathered is the growing number of lives lost at sea. While last year the number of migrants perishing in all Mediterranean crossings during the period January through April was 96, this year’s tally is an estimated 1,770 drownings through April 30.
IOM estimates that through last night, total migrant deaths from Mediterranean crossings stand at 1,829, compared to 207 through May 7, 2014.
This year the smugglers' modus operandi also seems to have changed: migrants are now arriving in larger numbers in a considerably shorter time frame.
The main countries of origin this year have been Eritrea (5,388), Somalia (3,717), Nigeria (2,789), Gambia (2,099) and Syria (2,091).
The latest tragedy occurred between Sunday 3rd and Monday 4th May, when a group of 137 migrants set out from Libya on an overloaded boat which broke down after 24 hours. Some 46 migrants are believed drowned during the ensuing shipwreck; the surviving 91 were rescued in international waters by the Zeran, a Maltese-flagged commercial ship. They were brought to Catania in Sicily on Tuesday May 5th.
IOM’s team in Italy has noted a continuing trend of growing numbers of women from Africa, particularly Nigerians, many of whom are being trafficked into the sex industry.
"In the first four months of 2015, we have registered an increase in the number of incoming Nigerian women - three times as many as during the same period last year. There are well-founded concerns that many of them may be victims of trafficking," said Federico Soda, Director of the IOM Coordination Office for the Mediterranean in Rome.
To address human trafficking, in 2014 IOM Italy established – in the framework of the Italian government and EU-funded Praesidium project – two special counter-trafficking teams in Sicily and Apulia, to identify vulnerable cases and offer assistance for women who are thought to have been trafficked.
"We look forward to learning what the European Union will propose next week to end the terrible tragedies which are occurring in the Mediterranean with alarming frequency,” Mr. Soda added. “We are confident that the humanitarian approach will unquestionably be at the heart of EU and global response. No more lives should be lost at sea."
Dr. Frank Laczko, Head of IOM’s Migration Research Division and director of its “Supporting Families of Missing Migrants” initiative, notes the devastating impact on the families left behind. These families often experience a double tragedy – loss of a loved one, and weeks and months living in limbo because they cannot obtain information about the circumstances of death.
“Desperate family members searching for information have even been known to seek out the services of smugglers themselves in order to reach the place where the death may have occurred,” he says.
“Families have a right, according to international humanitarian law, to know the fate of missing relatives, and where their remains are buried. Not knowing what has happened to a loved one means that funeral and mourning ceremonies cannot take place; legal issues such as inheritance and land ownership remain unsolved, and a spouse cannot remarry,” he adds.
International protocols have been developed for recording the dead in humanitarian disasters, identifying their mortal remains and tracing their relatives. These protocols also need to be applied to missing migrants, according to IOM.