Around 300 migrants are feared dead off the coast of an Italian island after trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in open rubber boats.
According to the BBC, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees official Vincent Cochetel stated that it was a “tragedy on an enormous scale.”
Survivors brought to the Italian island of Lampedusa said they were forced to risk the bad weather on ill-equipped vessels by human traffickers in Libya.
They were rescued from two of four dinghies that got into trouble after leaving Libya for Europe on Saturday.
The Italian coast guard rescued 105 people on Monday after one of the dinghies overturned, but 29 died after spending several hours in the water.
Those rescued on Wednesday morning had spent days drifting without food or water in two of the other dinghies — with each said to be carrying more than 100 people.
The survivors said the fourth dinghy, carrying an estimated 100 migrants, disappeared at sea.
Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said the victims had been “swallowed up by the waves,” with the youngest a child of 12.
“This is a tragedy on an enormous scale and a stark reminder that more lives could be lost if those seeking safety are left at the mercy of the sea,” Cochetel said in a statement.
The U.N. said the latest incident should be a message to the European Union that the current search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean was inadequate.
“Europe cannot afford to do too little too late,” Cochetel added.
In November, Italy ended an operation known as Mare Nostrum, which was launched in October 2013 in response to a tragedy off Lampedusa, in which 366 people died.
The year-long operation was aimed at rescuing seaborne migrants, with Italian vessels looking for ships carrying migrants that may have run into trouble off the Libyan coast.
Late last year, the UNHCR warned that Italy’s decision to end its operation in the Mediterranean would almost certainly lead to more deaths.
But other European countries, including the U.K., said a rescue service for migrants could encourage them and so the operation was scaled down.
The E.U. now runs a border control operation, called Triton, which only operates close to Europe’s coast and with fewer ships.
USA Today reports that in a statement, the director general of watchdog group International Organization for Migration, William Lacy Swing, said, “What’s happening now is worse than a tragedy — it is a crime — one as bad as any I have seen in 50 years of service.
“These smuggling networks act with virtual impunity and hundreds are dying. The world must act.”
The IOM said the boats were carrying nationals from Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania.
The UNHCR says almost 3,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2014, making it the world’s most dangerous sea crossing for migrants.
More than 200,000 people were rescued in the Mediterranean during the same period, many under the Mare Nostrum mission, prior to its abolition.
In a speech to the European Parliament last year, Pope Francis called for a “united response” to the issue, warning that the Mediterranean could not be allowed to become a “vast cemetery.”
[Image via Reuters/BBC]