Early Thursday morning, a trawler loaded with approximately 500 African immigrants, including children, sank off the coast of Lampedusa, a southern Italian island. Refuge was in sight for the immigrants, until the ship caught fire and capsized.
At least 114 people drowned in the disaster, and 250 are missing, according to the coastguard. The death toll is likely to rise in the coming days.
The ship, a rickety trawler, had reportedly floated without power in the Mediterranean Sea for at least two days in their doomed attempt to reach Europe.The Sicilian island of Lampedusa was less than a quarter of a mile away, but it was nighttime, and the people aboard were getting desperate to be rescued.
Somebody on the ship decided to try signaling for help by setting a blanket on fire with a match.
The flaming blanket ignited nearby gasoline, which made the situation quickly get out of control as the fire spread.The panic that ensued led to the capsizing of the trawler. The migrants found themselves tossed into the sea. The majority of them couldn’t swim.
The maritime disaster is one of the worst in recent history to happen in the area. At least 150 people managed to survive and were rescued by Italy’s Coast Guard, who are continuing their efforts to find survivors.
The sea route is a very perilous one, but African migrants are desperate to reach Europe, so they will go to any lengths they can in their efforts, even if it means risking their own lives.
Though most people in Italy are saddened by the terrible tragedy, some have used it to spark anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The Italian Coast Guard have pulled scores of dead bodies from the sea, and the Mayor of Lampedusa, Guisi Nicolini, statted to reporters that the scene was “horrific, like a cemetery,” and added that “they are still bringing them out.”
According to the United Nations refugee agency UNNCR, the trawler departed from Libya.
President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy Called for action to be taken by the European Union. He said the problem was not just Italy’s, but also was a problem of all of Europe. He said that if action was necessary to prevent “a succession of massacres of innocent people.”
In 2012, approximately 500 people died attempting to make the journey from Tunisia to Italy, according to UNNCR. Part of the numbers were refugees attempting to flee Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Pope Francis called the tragedy a “shame” and a “disgrace” and he added:
Let us unite our strengths so that such tragedies never happened again.”
How many immigrants made it to Italy successfully by sea last year?
About 15,000 immigrants were able to make it to Italy and Malta by sea in 2012. The amount of immigrants streaming into Italy has put an added strain on the country’s economy.
According to Italy’s Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi, legal measures need to be enacted to fight against the traffickers in transporting illegal immigrants.
Lupi said dealing with the issue was one that both Italy and “the international community and the European community have to take on as well.”
With over 250 people still missing after the tragic capsizing of a trawler near the Italian island of Lampedusa, the death toll is likely to rise.
Written by: Douglas Cobb