“We saved 86 migrants,” Maria Rita Agliozzo, an Order of Malta doctor on the Italian coastguard vessel, told Radio Radicale. “We did many resuscitations. We resuscitated two children – a two-year-old and a three-year-old – and also a woman.”
Rescuers pulled dozens of people to safety, some of whom had managed to stay onboard the half-submerged dinghy. The bodies of eight women were recovered.
The deaths represent the first large-scale migrant tragedy of 2018 in the Mediterranean. A total of 2,832 migrants died on the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy in 2017, down from 4,581 in 2016. The number of migrants who reached Italy in 2017 was 119,310, down from 181,436 in 2016.
Flavio Di Giacomo, of the IOM, said survivors interviewed in Catania after their rescue reported that 150 people had been onboard the dinghy when it set off from the Libyan coast.
“Sixty-four migrants lost their life in the shipwreck [which] occurred last Saturday,” Di Giacomo said.
Médicines Sans Frontières (MSF) tweeted: “Survivors held on to the wreckage as they waited for a rescue with the bodies of those who didn’t make it, including family members, floating around them. It’s 2018 and people continue to die in the Mediterranean.”
The IOM and UNHCR said the migrants came from the Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria.
The dinghy had been spotted by an aircraft from a European naval mission targeting people trafficking.
Local police kept journalists away from the landing area for survivors of Saturday’s disaster. The mayor of Catania, Enzo Bianco, said anyone who played on such tragedies for political gain would have to look to their consciences.
Bianco told Radio Radicale that a child whose mother died was among the survivors of the weekend’s disaster. “I watched a three-year-old girl while she was starting to play at the port here. She was saved, grabbed at the last second, by the coastguard in the sea,” he said. “She was clinging to her mother and she saw her drown.” Bianco said the girl was now with her aunt, who also survived the wreck.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been rescued and taken to southern Italian ports in the past few years, including nearly 119,000 in 2017. More than 3,000 drowned in the Mediterranean last year, the IOM said.
They included refugees fleeing wars or persecution who hoped to be given asylum, and economic migrants mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.
There was a sharp drop in arrivals in Italy during the second half of 2017 following efforts by Rome to discourage migrants from attempting the crossing.
The treatment of migrants in Italy is likely to become even more controversial in the run-up to parliamentary elections in March. Many Italians feel the country has been forced to carry an unfair burden, but many object to its increasingly harsh approach.
Separately, the Libyan coastguard announced it had rescued 270 people from two boats in distress in a stretch of sea east of Tripoli.
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