As many as 300 migrants are missing and feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after a United Nations agency confirmed the existence of a fourth inflatable boat believed to have set sail from Libya with similar vessels at the weekend.
One of the migrants' boats was discovered off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on Sunday. Initial reports suggested 29 people died in that shipwreck.
However, in a new statement, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the total dead is likely to be higher following the discovery of the existence of further boats. It cited figures provided by survivors:
They confirmed to UNHCR that they had left on Saturday from Libya on rubber dinghies and had been at sea for days, without food and water. Only two out of 107 passengers survived on a dinghy, and 7 out of 109 people on another one. The fourth one was reported to UNHCR by survivors, which is still missing. The youngest of the missing was a 12 year old boy.
The survivors said the four boats left Libya together without food or water and began taking on seawater soon after setting sail. Approximately 107 were rescued by the Italian coast guard and a merchant vessel, the Associated Press reported.
The nationalities of the survivors have yet to be released, but AP reported that many were fleeing conflicts in Mali, Syria, and Libya.
The UNHCR's Europe director, Vincent Cochetel, said:
This is a tragedy on an enormous scale and a stark reminder that more lives could be lost if those seeking safety are left at the mercy of the sea. Saving lives should be our top priority. Europe cannot afford to do too little too late.
The UNHCR was one of a number of humanitarian organizations to criticize the European Union's Triton mission, which took over the Mediterranean migrant rescue patrol from the Italian government's Mare Nostrum in November. The agency said:
Europe's Triton operation, which is run by the European border protection agency Frontex, is not focused on search and rescue and is not providing the necessary tools to cope with the scale of the crises. Saving lives must be a priority for the European Union.
According to AP, Laurens Jolles, the U.N agency's representative for southern Europe, echoed the sentiments, saying: "The Triton operation doesn't have as its principal mandate saving human lives, and thus cannot be the response that is urgently needed."
While Italy's Mare Nostrum — meaning "Our Seas" — took its patrol boats right up to the Libyan coast, the EU operation stays only a few miles off European shores, its job being to protect European borders.
Save the Children and Amnesty International were among a number of non-governmental organizations to also voice concerns about the effectiveness of Triton, AP reported.