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Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-04-06

Scores of people have gone missing in the Mediterranean after a boat laden with some 200 African migrants capsized overnight off the Italian island of Lampedusa en route from Libya.

More than 130 people were missing Wednesday after a boat carrying African migrants from Libya capsized in heavy seas near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.

Italian coastguard officials said they had saved 47 people, but strong winds and rough waters were hampering efforts to find more survivors. 

“Many are suffering from hypothermia,” said Simona Moscarelli of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), who was at the port in Lampedusa as the coastguard vessels arrived carrying the survivors.

Most of the people on board appeared to be Eritrean and Somali refugees who boarded the 13-metre-long (42-foot) vessel two days ago from the western Libyan port of Zuwarah, according to Italian coastguard officials.

The recent upheaval in North Africa has seen tens of thousands of people attempt the perilous crossing to Europe, disrupting the coastguard patrols that European nations have subsidised in a bid to keep migrants at bay.

Since February, more than 20,000 migrants – almost all men in their 20s and 30s – have crossed the narrow stretch of sea that separates Africa from Lampedusa, a tiny speck of land located about 200 kms north of Tunisia and some 400 kms south of Sicily.

Rickety boats hailing from the Tunisian ports of Djerba and Zarzis have so far accounted for the bulk of the influx. But the arrival last week of the first vessels from Libya appeared to confirm Italian fears of a broader exodus from the former Italian colony.

“Some 2,000 people have arrived from Libya since Saturday, but none of them Libyan,” an IOM spokesman, Flavio Di Giacomo, told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday. Most are from Somalia, Eritrea and Ghana – the vanguard of the estimated 1.5 million migrants bottled up in Libya since Colonel Muammar Gaddafi signed a controversial agreement with Italy in 2008, promising to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean in return for international recognition, cash and lucrative oil contracts.

In recent weeks, airplanes and ferries have rushed between Lampedusa and mainland Italy loaded with migrants who have, at times, outnumbered the tiny island’s 5,000-strong population.

Most migrants plan to head toward northern Europe, where many claim to have family. But their fate remains unclear. Cono Callipò, who heads the migrant reception centre in Lampedusa, says they will be screened to determine whether they qualify as asylum seekers or as economic migrants. “If they are simply looking for work they will eventually be sent back home,” he said.


Date created : 2011-04-06

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