After a surge in reported shipwrecks and other incidents at sea during the past eight days, estimated deaths through 30 May this year have risen to 2,443 on all Mediterranean routes – a 34 percent increase over the first five months of 2015.
A week ago, when IOM briefed on the situation on the Mediterranean, we reported that confirmed fatalities were running 24 percent fewer than last year’s total through all of May. That estimate -1,828 on all known migrant routes – was less than half of the final total for 2015, which came to 3,770.
For the first three weeks of May 2016, IOM estimated just 13 fatalities in three incidents. None of them occurred on the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece, where through the first four months of the year, nearly 400 migrants and refugees drowned. We saw this as a hopeful trend.
The events of this past week – with at least 1,000 deaths – have obviously changed our assessment. The past eight days marks one of the deadliest periods yet in the migration crisis, which is now in its fourth year.
Some important benchmarks to note include:
• Over 13,000 migrants were rescued in the Channel of Sicily between Monday 23 May to Sunday 29 May, bringing the total rescued through May 2016 to 47,600 men, women and children.
• Despite the increase of arrivals recorded in this period, the number of migrants who have arrived in Italy this year is almost precisely the same as during this period last year (47,463 as of 31 May 2015).
The worst incident occurred last Thursday and involved an engineless wooden boat with over 550 people on board. The vessel was being towed by another smuggling boat, which had an estimated 800 people on board. After several hours, the smaller boat began to take on water.
According to testimonies gathered by IOM from survivors in Italy, the captain of the towing boat then cut the tow line. The second vessel continued to take on water and eventually capsized. Initial reports indicate most of the migrants aboard drowned, with just 87 survivors. The migrants included many Eritreans, but there were also Ethiopians and Sudanese on board.
IOM staff interviewed one survivor, Stefanos, a young Eritrean: “There were many women and boys in the hold. We were taking on water, but we had a pump that helped us to push the water out. When the pump ran out of fuel, we asked for more fuel to the captain of the first boat, who said no. At this point there was nothing left to do: the water was everywhere and we slowly started to sink. There were between about 35 women and 40 children next to me: they all died,” he said.
Another deadly incident, reported by IOM last Friday, occurred on Wednesday, May 25. After having met survivors, IOM staff report that the number of confirmed fatalities now is 250—not the 100 initially estimated. Other survivors, rescued last Thursday by the vessel “Reina Sofia” – which recovered 45 bodies – testified that their boat was carrying some 350 people. About 280 of those remain missing.
Federico Soda, Director of the IOM Coordination Office for the Mediterranean in Rome noted: “The increase in numbers of arrivals is attributable, in part, to better weather, and in part to the use of bigger wooden boats that can carry more people than the rubber boats usually used. Smugglers put over 700 migrants in the wooden boats, whereas the rubber ones generally carry only 100 to 120 people. During the last few days we have had major accidents involving unsafe wooden boats. This also explains the increase in the number of migrants dead or missing: one accident can result in hundreds of fatalities.”
In the case of the incident that caused 500 deaths, the boat went out without an engine. Survivors reported they did not want to leave in such conditions, but were forced aboard by the smugglers.
“This is a humanitarian emergency in the desert and at sea where thousands of people are dying. For the moment, the number of arrivals is the same as last year, but the number of deaths registered this year is already higher compared to the same period in 2015. Without the outstanding work of the many rescue ships patrolling the Channel of Sicily, the death toll would have been even higher,” Soda added.
“The rescue operations are indispensable and must continue – we commend all those involved in these life saving efforts. But these operations are not in and of themselves a solution. We must come together to change irregular, dangerous and costly migration to migration that is legal, safe and orderly.”
Meanwhile in Greece, on 27 May a boat with 64 migrants issued a distress call while navigating south of Crete. The Greek Coast Guard, along with two fishing vessels, managed to transfer the migrants to the Port of Siteia. On 28 May, IOM personnel in Crete visited Siteia. Among those rescued were 13 people from Afghanistan: (6 male; 7 female), 17 from Iran (13 male; 4 female), 28 from Iraq (14 male; 14 female), 5 from Syria (2 male; 3 female) and from 1 from Pakistan (1 boy). There were also two pregnant women. The migrants included a 9-month old Iraqi baby and a 71-year old Iraqi woman, travelling alone. According to the migrants, they were forced to pay to the smugglers between $5,000 and $7,500 for their passage.
A 40 year old Iraqi man told IOM: “Before the war our life in Iraq was wonderful. I owned a supermarket, a truck and I had a beautiful house. Now I have nothing. I sold everything to save my family and myself. In 2014 I managed to send my 3 children and my wife in Glasgow. I paid $25,000 for each one of them to travel on a false passport from Turkey by air. I missed them so much I decided after two years to leave Iraq. Meanwhile the situation with terrorists has been deteriorated. We are not safe. Every night I see the terrorists 300 meters away from my house. Our lives are constantly at risk.”
“I found a smuggler in Iraq who transferred me to Istanbul, Turkey. In Istanbul it is very easy to find smuggler. Every coffee shop is full of smugglers. They ask you “Where do you want to go? Germany?” They send you to Germany. Turkish police and smugglers work together. Turkish policemen ask for bribes from the migrants in order to let them leave without documents. From Istanbul, the smugglers took us to the Dalamar district of Marmaris. I spent 10 days in a house, along with other migrants. We were locked in a house.”
“After 10 days, they transferred us to the port. We saw the ship at midnight. The smuggler asked if we wanted to get on board. It seemed to be seaworthy and I paid $5,000 to go to Italy and then on to Scotland to find my family. The Turkish police oversaw the whole operation. They assisted us to get on board and they escorted us 200 meters away from the coast, and then they turned back!”
“On the ship the smugglers took our mobiles and locked us inside for the most of the journey. They were on the upper deck, where they were driving and smoking marihuana. They didn’t let us see them. They just shouted at us: “Shut up! Shut up!” They didn’t give us food or water for 36 hours. There was no toilet on our deck.”
“The ship was decent, but the weather was rough. Water came into the hold from the waves. Everyone was crying, vomiting and some lost conscious couple of times. We were scared and thought we were dying. At this point we called the Coast Guard and asked them to rescue us.”
“Now I want to go to my family more than anything else. I can’t wait for six months until the asylum procedure ends. I have money. I will pay someone to take me to my family. I sold everything, just to be with them. I will go. I don’t care if I live or die during the journey. Six months is too long.”
Separately, a 28 year-old woman from Baghdad, traveling with her infant, told IOM: “I left Iraq with my 9-month old son, without my husband knowing. I only informed my parents, who supported me in this. I decided to do it that way, because in Iraq there is no freedom for women. I was really depressed by my husband. I wasn’t allowed to do anything without his consent. Women are human beings, and they should be equally treated with men. I left Iraq without a plan. I only knew that I wanted to leave.”
“Our journey was really bad. The baby and I were on the lower deck with four more persons in a cabin a little bigger than a telephone booth. The weather was bad. We thought we were dying. Big waves were hitting the ship. My son was constantly crying and vomiting. I was also scared. No one helped me.”
“We were so disappointed to hear that we are in Greece. Our destination was Italy. I contacted my parents and they told me to go back to Iraq. But I am not listening to them. I made my own decision. I want to live free, without being patronized. I will try to go to the Netherlands or to Germany, despite the fact that I have no one to look after us in Europe.”