Migrants 'crushed, drowned' in dinghy horror

Agence France-Presse
Migrants sit in their boat during a rescue operation by Italian navy ship Borsini (unseen) off the coast of Sicily, Italy, in this handout picture courtesy of the Italian Marina Militare released on July 19, 2016.
Migrants sit in their boat during a rescue operation by Italian navy ship Borsini off the coast of Sicily, Italy, in this handout picture courtesy of the Italian Marina Militare released on July 19, 2016.
Marina Militare/Handout

Horror stories emerged Friday of the death of 22 migrants who drowned after they were crushed underfoot in a dinghy in the Mediterranean when panic broke out on board.

Red Cross workers held roses and stood in silence on the portside in Trapani, Sicily, as the bodies of 21 women and a man were carried off a rescue ship, placed in wooden coffins and loaded into hearses.

The crew of the MS Aquarius, chartered by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and French NGO SOS Mediterranee, discovered the dead at the bottom of a dinghy when they picked up over 200 migrants on Wednesday.

Survivors told MSF the victims had drowned in 12 inches of water and fuel.

"People were trying not to slip into (the) pool of fuel/water in (the) middle of (the) dinghy, but when they moved to the sides more water came in," a survivor named only as David was quoted as saying on MSF's Twitter feed.

The overcrowded dinghy was deflating on one side. Those aboard began trying to bail out the water, which rose quickly to knee high.

"Girls sitting down in centre started to panic, tried to get up," he said.

"The bodies were on the floor under water, we were shouting and praying to be rescued."

MSF said many of the 209 survivors were crying as they disembarked, and the charity was offering psychological support.

Among those saved by the MS Aquarius were two pregnant women and 50 children, 45 of whom were travelling without their parents.

'How many more victims?' 

It was not the first tragedy to be caused by panic onboard over fears of sinking.

Desperate migrants all too often cause their own shipwrecks as they tip their unstable crafts over by waving frantically for help or attempting to bail out water.

Rescuers recovered a further 17 bodies from a vessel on Thursday, when over 1,000 migrants were picked up in eight separate operations. It was not clear how they had died.

"Policies that try and keep people away are not working," said Jens Pagotto, MSF Head of Mission for Search and Rescue Operations, as the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean continues unabated.

"How many more lives will have to be lost at sea before people in need of assistance and protection are provided with a safer alternative?" he asked.

The latest arrivals take the number of migrants to have landed in Italy this year to over 80,000, according to the UN's refugee agency.

The number is inexact, as some traffickers manage to avoid detection and land their human cargo directly on shores in southern Italy.

Since 2014, more than 10,000 migrants have died or are feared to have drowned while attempting the perilous journey to Europe by sea, most losing their lives in the central Mediterranean, the UNHCR says.

Nearly 3,000 have died or been lost at sea during the crossing so far this year. That represents a sharp increase on the same period in 2015, when 1,870 people died, according to MSF.

"Our experience is that the number of migrant boats — simple dinghies with hundreds of people massed on them — driven to leave by the difficult situation in Libya, are on the rise," Loris De Filippi, head of MSF Italy, said Thursday.