By Uduma Kalu with agency reports
Around the sea scenes was chaos. And dozens of men battled to drag other survivors from the treacherous waves. But not all were lucky. A short distance away, a tiny corpse was carried to land, his woolly hat dripping salt water.
These were the harrowing scenes on the shores of Europe today as up to 11,000 migrants are feared dead after three separate disasters between last Friday and this Monday.
More than 900 mainly African migrants are believed to have perished when a 75 foot fishing boat capsized off Libya in one of the worst maritime tragedies since the Second World War.
Survivors claimed up to 300 people including women and children ‘drowned like rats in cages’ after being locked in the hold by callous traffickers. In a frantic fight for life, they clung to their dead bodies to stay afloat.
Another two boats are thought to be in danger off the coast of Libya with Maltese and Italian coastguards tending to them. Twenty are already feared dead aboard one of the vessels, both of which are carrying more than 100 people.
Three people died after a boat carrying dozens of migrants ran aground on the Greek holiday island of Rhodes. Beach-goers were among the first to come to survivors’ rescue as emergency services off the coast of Libya continued to survey the horror of an earlier disaster.
A dead child was among t drownws on the Greek island of Rhodes after a wooden sailing boat carrying dozens of people ran aground, killing at least three people in one of a number of tragedies involving migrant vessels over the last two days. Video footage showed a large, wooden double-masted boat with people packed on board, just metres away from the Greek island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
An international aid agency spokeswoman has compared the scale of deaths in recent shipwrecks to the death toll in the sinking of the Titanic luxury liner more than a century ago.
Sarah Tyler, a spokeswoman for Save the Children in Catania, Sicily, said more than 1,000 people have died in the waters of the Mediterranean in recent weeks.
She added: ‘That is almost as many as died in the Titanic, and 31 times the number who died when the Costa Concordia sank.’
If the latest deaths are confirmed, the number of people who have died trying to reach Europe for a better life will have topped 1,650 so far this year – more than 30 times higher than the same period last year.
How the boats tragedies occurred
In Greece, the vessel capsized after hitting rocks off the coast, causing dozens of desperate migrants to fall in to the choppy waters with Greeks and holidaymakers watching on in horror. On Sunday, the accident happened in Libyan waters – 130 miles off the Italian coast of Lampedusa. It is thought the boat capsized after migrants on board all flooded to one side of the boat as a merchant ship approached.
Rescuers lament: Francesco Gallo, an officer on board the Guardia Finanza police boat Monte Sperone, told of the harrowing moment he picked up the lifeless body of a small boy.
He told Corriere della Sera: ‘We approached in the rubber dinghy and in my heart I prayed that he was alive, but the hope died soon after. He was a little black boy. He would have been about ten. I held him in my arms as if he were my own son. We are afraid to think about what we will find underneath us.’
The ship’s captain Paolo Zottola said his team would not stop until they have found everyone – dead or alive. He said: ‘It’s a hard job, our job, but we have to do it. Unfortunately we can’t work miracles. But you never get used to the pain.’ He added: ‘With the water temperature so cold at midnight they wouldn’t have survived more than half and hour’.
How we survived-Migrants
Survivors have told of how they clung to their comrades’ corpses as night fell in the dark waters. ‘We held onto the dead so we wouldn’t sink to the bottom,’ said one pair, found among the dead when rescuers arrived at the boat late last night. They were saved when the coastguard heard their tired screams. ‘While we searched through the sea filled with corpses we found two people alive among the dead,’ one responder said. ‘They were weary and tired and shouted with their last strength when they heard the noise of the engine. ‘Thankfully we were able to locate them and save them otherwise they would not have lasted much longer. The small numbers of survivors make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, ‘surely the boat would have sunk,’ said General Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation.
Burial: Already, more than 900 people – including 200 women and up to 50 children – feared dead after the boat overturned in the one of the worst maritime disasters since the end of World War 11 are said to have been taken for burial. Meanwhile, Ethiopian officials have revealed that the 30 Christians filmed being beheaded and shot by Islamic State militants in Libya are likely to have been desperate migrants trying to reach Europe. The 29-minute video released yesterday is titled ‘Until It Came To Them – Clear Evidence’, and shows dozens of militants butchering two separate groups of men in the north African country.
Italian media said a 32-year-old Bangladeshi brought by helicopter to hospital in Sicily told police there had been 950 passengers on the boat, which sank when people on board rushed to one side to attract attention from a passing merchant ship. ‘There were also 200 women and 50 children with us. Many were shut in the hold. They died like rats in a cage,’ he was reported as saying by La Sicilia.
He also told La Repubblica: ‘Me and others survived because we were on the deck, others drowned and many others were prisoners in the hold of the boat because the traffickers closed the portholes to stop them from coming out and they have finished at the bottom of the sea.’ He has been interviewed by prosecutors and is currently being treated in a hospital.
Traffickers charge $10,000
People traffickers say the EU’s decision to stop search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean has done nothing to stem the flow of migrants trying to reach Europe. The Italian operation called Mare Nostrum was abandoned late last year despite rescuing tens of thousands of people. European chiefs believed the move would stop migrants and smugglers from making the perilous journey if they thought there was less chance of them being saved.
But one trafficker named Ahmed, who is based in Tripoli, Libya said business was still flourishing. He told The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley,he didn’t even know the operations had ended, adding: ‘Many people would go on the boats even if they didn’t have any rescue operations. ‘It’s simply not going to stop… there ‘s always going to be an appetite for it.’
Some traffickers charge as much as $10,000 (£7,000) for an entire journey from their country of origin to Europe. Italian authorities are now investigating whether the aforementioned merchant ship collided with the fishing boat.
Rescuers recovered 24 bodies from the sea following the disaster, which took place off Libyan waters, south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, shortly after midnight on Sunday.