VALLETTA, Malta — Three deadly Mediterranean shipwrecks that claimed the lives of hundreds of would-be asylum seekers fleeing war and repression sharpened calls Saturday for humanitarian corridors to allow safe passage to Europe.
At least 34 people drowned in Maltese waters south of the Italian island of Lampedusa when a boat packed with hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians capsized on Friday, the same day another 12 migrants died in a shipwreck off of Egypt.
Those tragedies came just eight days after at least 339 Eritreans died when their boat sank within sight of Lampedusa, in one of the worst verified migrant sea tragedies on the Mediterranean.
Facing unrest and persecution in Africa and the Middle East, many migrants risk the often perilous journey to Lampedusa, a gateway to Europe just 70 miles from Africa, in rickety boats procured by people smugglers who charge more than $2,200. Most are asylum seekers, fleeing civil war in Syria or repression and mandatory conscription in Eritrea, unlike the waves of economic migrants a decade ago.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres expressed concern that Syrians fleeing conflict have sought to reach Europe by such a perilous route, calling it “inhumane.”
“They escaped bullets and bombs only to perish before they could ever claim asylum,” he said, adding that there had been reports that the vessel had been fired on shortly after departing Zwara, Libya.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for action to prevent tragedies “that places the vulnerability and human rights of migrants at the center,” while Pope Francis lamented that “too often we are blinded by our comfortable lives, and refuse to see those dying at our doorstep.”
The boat in Maltese waters capsized about 65 miles southeast of Lampedusa, in waters where Malta has search and rescue responsibilities.
A joint Italian-Malta operation rescued nearly 200 people after the Italian Coast Guard received a distress call via satellite phone from the boat and a Maltese aircraft sighted the capsized boat with numerous people in the water. At least 34 people died, while 146 survivors were brought to Malta.
The victims included a 3-year-old boy whose body was found floating in the sea more than a day after the boat capsized, said Silvio Scerri, the chief of staff at Malta’s Home Affairs Ministry.
The UN refugee agency said survivors say up to 400 people were on board. Search operations were underway.
Other survivors, 56 in all, who were not in immediate need of medical attention were heading to Sicily on board an Italian frigate.
Italian Naval spokesman Commander Marco Maccaroni said some 180 people from other boats were rescued in the same area overnight — another indication of the relentless flows of migrants braving the Mediterranean.