GENEVA – This year is on track to become the deadliest ever for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea after two heavily loaded boats were wrecked in the past week, possibly killing 700 people fleeing Africa for Europe -- the same number as died during all of last year.
That would raise the total number of migrants killed on the sea in 2014 to about 2,900, according to estimates from the International Organization for Migration and other officials.
More than 20,000 people have died in the past two decades trying to reach the Italian coast, including 2,300 in 2011 and around 700 in 2013. The migration organization says the steep death toll reflects turmoil in Libya, Syria, Iraq and across the Middle East and Africa. To escape those conflicts, many people are willing to board unsafe smugglers' boats.
About 500 Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese are feared dead after their boat was rammed and sunk off the Malta coast last week, the IOM, an inter-governmental organization with 156 member countries, said Monday. Another 200 are feared dead in the wreck of a second boat that was carrying at least 250 African migrants to Europe when it capsized off the Libyan coast.
The migrants apparently lost off Malta were undertaking a perilous journey from the Egyptian port of Damietta, seeking a better life in Europe, when their boat was overtaken by human traffickers equipped with two vessels on Wednesday, said organization spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume.
For years now, thousands of African, Asian or Middle Eastern migrants have attempted risky voyages, primarily from Libya, across the Mediterranean to get to Italy's coastline and islands. Hundreds die en route. Unless they are eligible for asylum or have families or jobs in Europe, they risk expulsion by Italy.
This year, with the surge of conflicts, roughly as many arrived in the first few months of 2014 as in all of 2013. Many are Syrians, Palestinians, Eritreans, Sudanese or from other African countries.
Italy has repeatedly pleaded with its European partners for more help patrolling the waters. Previous deals between the Italian government and the regime of Moammar Gadhafi to thwart smuggling operations in exchange for Italian infrastructure projects yielded at best only modest results and fell apart when the regime was ousted.
According to IOM's interviews with two of the survivors from the group that left Damietta, the traffickers rammed the boat carrying the migrants with one of their vessels. The two survivors, both Palestinians, said there had been a violent confrontation between the migrants and the traffickers when the traffickers tried to move the migrants onto a smaller boat.
Berthiaume told The Associated Press the traffickers "used one boat to knock the other" and that there were about nine known survivors in all.
The Palestinians were rescued by a Panamanian-flagged container ship. Both were taken to Sicily. The other seven survivors were picked up by other boats that brought them to Crete, Greece and Malta.
`'We cannot say how many might be missing" because the Italian Coast Guard didn't pick up those survivors who gave that account, said Lt. Alessandra Ventriglia. She said a search of the area, which lasted through Sunday, found no trace of the boat or the bodies.
Berthiaume said the other boat capsized Monday before leaving the coast near the Libyan capital. Coast guard spokesman Qassim Ayoub told AP that dozens of bodies were being retrieved from waters about 18 kilometers (11 miles) off the coast of Tripoli's Tajoura district. Thirty-six African migrants, including three women -- one of them pregnant -- were rescued.
More than 100,000 people have been rescued in the Mediterranean since January, the U.N. refugee agency said. Over this past weekend alone, Italian rescuers helped save nearly 3,000 migrants.
The Panamanian-flagged container ship also rescued more than 380 people who were aboard another boat that sunk in the Mediterranean during the past week, the IOM and Ventriglia said.
There were few other details available, partly because the rescue was carried out by a commercial ship.
On Sunday, Angelina Jolie met with surviving refugees on Malta and called on the world to "wake up" to the migrant crisis involving Mediterranean countries. The actress serves as special envoy for the United Nations' refugee agency.