Mediterranean migrants died from poisonous fumes: IOM

On Saturday in the Sicily Channel 49 migrants were found dead on a ship carrying over 300 people.

Some 49 migrants were asphyxiated by poisonous fumes in the hold of a fishing boat off Libya
Some 49 migrants were asphyxiated by poisonous fumes in the hold of a fishing boat off Libya

Teams from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) who met survivors of another Mediterranean tragedy this past weekend learned grisly details of an asphyxiation that claimed dozens of migrants’ lives.

On Saturday in the Sicily Channel 49 migrants were found dead on a ship carrying over 300 people.

The survivors were rescued by the Italian Navy ship “Cigala Fulgosi” 21 miles off Libya’s coast.

This tragedy is the latest in a long list of catastrophic events occurring in recent weeks. A total of 350 migrants have died since 5 August, bringing the total number of deaths at sea in the Mediterranean to nearly 2,350 since the beginning of this year.

“As we have already said in similar cases, what happened cannot be simply considered an incident. It is a crime. These unscrupulous smugglers are sending thousands of people to their deaths,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing in Geneva.

“A striking number of migrants are dying in the Channel of Sicily almost on a daily basis, while thousands of others are facing difficult conditions in the Greek islands, particularly Kos. There are also reports of an increasing number of migrants trying to reach Europe through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (the FYROM) and Serbia in appalling conditions,” he added.

Saturday’s 49 corpses were discovered by Italian sailors in the hold of a small, 15-metre fishing boat, which was partially immersed in water and spilling fuel. They determined that the migrants were likely asphyxiated by fumes from the vessel’s engine.

By the end of the operation, the Italians rescued 313 migrants, including 45 women and three minors – mainly from Morocco, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sub-Saharan Africa and Syria. The dead reportedly included migrants from Sub-Sahara Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

According to early reports, the “Cigala Fulgosi” responded to a distress call. It reached the fishing boat, which had left Zwara some time after dark, before dawn on Saturday.

The corpses, and the hundreds of survivors, later were transferred at sea to a Norwegian naval ship, the “Siem Pilot”, which was patrolling the Mediterranean in the framework of the Triton operation.

The “Siem Pilot” was already carrying 100 migrants rescued by the German navy ship “Werra” and on Monday morning reached the port of Catania with 412 rescued migrants on board. IOM staff in Catania met the migrants and interviewed them soon after their arrival.

“The boat started to have problems a few hours after leaving Libya and was going very slow,” said IOM Italy spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo.

“The heat in the hold was unbearable, especially in the area close to the engine, which was leaking fumes and fuel. Some migrants managed to reach the deck. They told us that they didn’t even have any water to drink. Those who were close to the engine could not move and started to die one by one. When the rescuers arrived, they found a horrific situation,” he added.

According to witnesses’ testimony, the smugglers forced Sub-Saharan Africans to sit in the hold, together with some migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Others were permitted to stay on deck.

“Unfortunately, this is quite common,” said Di Giacomo. “Sub-Saharan Africans are often put in the hold, as the smugglers regard them as less valuable. They usually pay less for their passage and often do not even get to buy a lifejacket – their best chance of surviving the journey.”

The hold is the most dangerous part of the boat: there are no windows and just one or two tiny exits. The fumes from the engines are poisonous and can often result in the death of some of those forced to travel below deck, Di Giacomo notes.

“This is a humanitarian emergency, but it is not an invasion. This is not a crisis of too many migrants reaching Europe and overburdening the continent. The emergency lies in the number of migrants needing aid and safe channels to migrate. The deteriorating conditions in the countries of origin and transit – including the conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, and in other countries suffering economic insecurity or collapse – are the main push factor and they are not likely to be resolved in the short term,” said Ambassador Swing.

“We are firmly convinced that responding collectively to migratory flows, which may be problematic for some countries individually, is absolutely manageable for the EU as a whole. These tragedies are a call to action for all EU member states to find a common humanitarian approach on this issue, which can only be managed with long-term, comprehensive and far-sighted policies that respect the human rights and dignity of the migrants,” he added. 

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