For the second time in a week, a smugglers' boat overloaded with migrants capsized in the Canal of Sicily on Friday as it made the perilous crossing from Africa to Europe. At least 27 people drowned, but 221 people were rescued in a joint Italian-Maltese operation, officials said.
Helicopters ferried the injured to Lampedusa, the Italian island that is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and the destination of choice for most smugglers' boats leaving Tunisia or Libya. It was off Lampedusa that a migrant ship from Libya capsized Oct. 3 with some 500 people aboard. Only 155 survived.
Friday's capsizing occurred 105 kilometres southeast of Lampedusa, but in waters where Malta has search and rescue responsibilities.
Hazardous journey deemed worth the risk
The two shipwrecks were the latest grim reminder of the extreme risks that migrants and asylum-seekers often take in an effort to slip into Europe every year by boat. Facing unrest and persecution in Africa and the Middle East, many of the migrants think the Lampedusa escape route to Europe, which is barely 113 kilometres from northern Africa, is worth the risk.
"They do know that they are risking their lives, but it is a rational decision," said Maurizio Albahari, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. "Because they know for a fact they will be facing death or persecution at home — whatever remains of their home, or assuming there is a home in the first place."
What drives them is the hope that they'll have a better life in Europe for themselves and their children, he said. "It's either perish or go somewhere."
In the latest case, the Italian coast guard said it received a satellite phone call from the boat that it was in distress and was able to locate it based on the satellite co-ordinates, said coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla.
A Maltese aircraft was sent up and reported that the boat had capsized and that "numerous" people were in the water. The aircraft dropped a life raft, and a patrol boat soon arrived at the scene, according to a statement from the Maltese armed forces.
Late Friday, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat reported that 27 bodies had been recovered, three of them children.
He said 150 survivors were rescued aboard a Maltese ship. An Italian patrol boat had another 56 survivors, while a fishing boat had 15, said Cmdr. Marco Maccaroni of the Italian navy. Between the Italian and Maltese ships, the total of survivors came to 221, though it wasn't clear if the injured who were flown by helicopter to Lampedusa were included in that figure.
The incident occurred as recovery operations continued Friday off Lampedusa for victims of the Oct. 3 shipwreck. The death toll stood Friday at 339, including a newborn recovered with its umbilical cord still attached, Di Milla said.
The recent deaths prompted renewed calls for the European Union to do more to better patrol the southern Mediterranean and prevent such tragedies — and for countries like Libya to crack down on smuggling operations.
"We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a cemetery," Muscat told a news conference in Valletta, the Maltese capital.
Lampedusa is the destination of choice for smugglers who usually charge more than 1,000 euros a head and cram the migrants onto boats that routinely run into trouble and require rescue. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.
Many immigrants fleeing conflict, persecution
Once in Italy, the migrants are screened for asylum and often sent back home if they don't qualify. During the 1990s and early 2000s, many of the arrivals were considered "economic migrants." But many of the latest arrivals are fleeing persecution and conflict in places such as Syria and Eritrea, and qualify for refugee status, U.N. officials say.
Many eventually end up in northern Europe's larger and more organized immigrant communities.
During a visit to Lampedusa this week, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso promised Italy some 30 million euros in EU funds to better care for newly arrived migrants.
Italian officials pledged to put the issue on the agenda of an upcoming European Union summit and on the EU agenda next year, when Italy and Greece hold the EU presidencies.
Some 30,100 migrants arrived in Italy and Malta in the first nine months of 2013, compared with 15,000 in all of 2012, according to the UN refugee agency.