Last week, one of the largest shipwrecks in years occurred in the Mediterranean Sea, killing as many as 500 people traveling to Italy. Now witnesses have told the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that not only was the sinking deliberate, but the traffickers guiding them laughed after capsizing the boat most of the migrants were travelling on.
The crossing between Egypt and Italy has long been a preferred route for people leaving the Middle East for Europe’s shores, but as of late it’s proved increasingly deadly. After leaving departing from the Egyptian port city of Damietta on Sept. 6, the travelers from Syria, Palestine, Sudan and Egypt were reportedly forced to switch ships several times during the journey. But when the migrants refused to transfer to a final ship that many of the travelers deemed unseaworthy, the ten men guiding them began throwing sticks and yelling at the migrants.
“The smuggler’s vessel approached the boat with migrants some of whom managed to jump into the smaller boat,” the IOM said in a release on Tuesday. “Witnesses say the smugglers forced them in the water and then rammed the bigger boat. It began to sink immediately while the smugglers stayed in the area until they were certain that the migrant’s vessel had sunk, witnesses said.”
“After they hit our boat they waited to make sure that it had sunk completely before leaving,” one survivor told the IOM. “They were laughing,” he continued, adding that “when the boat was first struck, one of the passengers killed himself in despair by hanging.” Only nine survivors have been located so far, who are recovering in Crete and Sicily. Based on a headcount taken at the start of the voyage, the IOM estimates that up to 100 children were among those who were lost at sea.
Two of the Palestinians who survived told the IOM that the office they arranged their travel through in Gaza charged $2,000 per person, paid in advance. Following the destruction of thousands of homes in Gaza during the most recent conflict, families were provided grants to rebuild their homes, which many of the travelers used to secure their passage. “We have information that 15 (Palestinians) drowned and dozens more are missing after trying to emigrate to Italy,” Fayez Abu Eita, a spokesman for the Fatah party in Gaza, told AFP. “The severe living and humanitarian conditions of the Palestinians are forcing people to emigrate.”
The news of the witness’ testimony came on the same day that “up to 200 more people were feared dead when another boat heading to Europe capsized off Libya.” Italy has become the largest destination for the migrants, with an unprecedented 119,839 people arriving since January alone. That surge, spurred on by a world where there are more people seeking asylum than any time since World War II, has also been reflected in a rising number of people who die in the process of making the journey.
Last year, an estimated 700 people died in total trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. In October 2013, a ship carrying over 500 migrants from the Libyan coast sank a quarter of a mile from Italian shore, off the coast of Lampedusa. In that case, only 155 survived. Eight days later, another shipwreck near Lampedusa killed at least 35 people. Yet another ship travelling along the same route sank in May of this year, killing another 17. On his first official trip outside of Rome, Pope Francis traveled to Lampedusa to commemorate the North African migrants who had perished due to “shipwreck, harsh conditions or lack of food and water” on the voyage.
This year, the death toll is already nearly 3,000. “The numbers dying off Europe’s coasts are shocking and unacceptable,” said IOM’s Director General William Lacy Swing in a statement released on Tuesday. “These are women, children and men who only hope for a more dignified life. The risks they take reflect their desperation and we cannot keep abandoning them to their fate.”