African migrants risk lives to flee homelands for future in Europe

Boat tragedy off the coast of Italy again highlights the treacherous journeys taken by migrants

An image taken from video released by the Italian coast guard shows migrants rescued from the water off the Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday.
Italian Coast Guard/Handout via Reuters

Authorities in Italy had to contend with choppy waters Friday as they continued their search for dozens of migrants believed to have drowned after their rickety boat caught fire and sank off the coast of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, killing more than 100 people, with hundreds more still missing. 

The scope of the tragedy, which left at least 127 people dead, prompted outpourings of grief and demands for a comprehensive policy to deal with migrants fleeing poverty and strife in Africa and the Middle East. The migrants on board the ship are believed to have been from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia.

Hundreds of migrants reach Italy's shores every day, particularly during the summer, when seas are usually calmer. Lampedusa — which, at 70 miles off Tunisia, is closer to Africa than to the Italian mainland — has been a main portal for waves of illegal immigration from Africa. 

Dan McNorton, a senior communications officer at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Al Jazeera that more than 30,000 migrants have made the "very perilous journeys" to southern Italy this year — many of them across the Mediterranean Sea. The majority arrive from Somalia, Eritrea and Syria — countries that have endured or continue to endure years of conflict. 

Going to great lengths

Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri reported that boats leave Africa every other day, many from Tunisia. However, Libya has recently become the point of origin for migrants leaving Tunisia, as authorities in Tunis have cracked down on migrant movement. 

Moshiri reported that she had spoken to immigrants in places like Sicily and Malta — many of whom had paid smugglers between $1,000 and $2,000 for the trip — who journeyed from Africa. They detailed the treacherous voyages to their European destinations while on boats that Volker Türk, director of international protection at UNHCR, called "extremely rickety" and "not fit for travel."  

McNorton touched on the lengths that some migrants go to just to reach their destinations in Europe. For example, he said that people from Eritrea might move into Tunisia across land through Yemen and through Saudi Arabia by crossing the Red Sea, or they might take a more direct route by crossing through Sudan in order to ultimately make their way to Europe.

Many migrants are still waiting to get into Europe. Human traffickers — capitalizing on the fact that summer is coming to a close and autumn is just around the corner, bringing with it bad weather and storms — are trying to get as many people as possible packed into boats and into Europe, Moshiri reported. 

"Certainly the actions of the traffickers require more international cooperation and action to deal with that," McNorton said. 

'A huge tragedy'

The 66-foot boat that sank Thursday started taking on water and then caught fire when someone set a piece of fabric ablaze to attract the attention of nearby vessels. Coast guard divers found the wreck on the seafloor some 130 feet below the surface.

Officials said just 155 people are known to have survived. Between 450 to 500 people were believed to have been on board the ship.  

Italian coast guard ships, fishing boats and helicopters from across the region have taken part in the search. Rescue crews hauled body bags by the dozens at Lampedusa port, lining them up under multicolored tarps on the docks.

"This is a huge tragedy that causes great suffering," said Rosario Crocetta, president of Sicily. "I want to go and see the dead to pay homage to our brothers who had a dream, to come to Italy, to Europe, to Sicily, in search of work and freedom but instead are now dead." 

"We will continue all day and all night until we are able to bury these bodies," the head of the Italian coast guard, Adm. Felicio Angrisano, said.

It was one of the deadliest accidents in the perilous crossing thousands make each year, seeking a new life in the prosperous European Union.

The UNHCR is also looking for more action on supporting countries like Italy and Malta, where many migrants arrive. 

McNorton said there needed to be a balance between a country's "legitimate concerns about border security and ensuring migrants' rights are protected."

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report. With Al Jazeera and wire services  

Related News

Africa, Italy

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Africa, Italy

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter