CAIRO: Human traffickers have deliberately drowned a migrant ship off Malta, killing at least 500 people onboard according to the testimony of survivors interviewed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“The survivors provided corroboration that the traffickers turned violent when the 500 migrants they were escorting to Europe refused to switch to an unseaworthy boat,” IOM reported Tuesday, following interviews conducted in Crete with four of six survivors from Egypt, Syria and Palestine.
The confrontation came as passengers refused to switch their boat for the fourth time, fearing the suggested switch was unsafe. The smugglers responded by forcing them overboard and sinking their vessel. Smugglers forced them in the water and then rammed the bigger boat. “They waited to make sure that it had sunk completely before leaving. They were laughing,” survivors told IOM.
An account was given to the Italian press and reported Tuesday by the Guardian in which Hamed, a 16-year-old Palestinian survivor, said, “When they told us that we had to go on to that other boat, we refused because we’d doubtless have finished up at the bottom of the sea.”
He continued: “At that point, the traffickers… rammed us, smashing the bows and we all finished up in the sea.”
“If survivors’ reports are confirmed, this will be the worst shipwreck of migrants in years, not an accidental tragedy, but the apparent deliberate drowning of migrants by criminal gangs who extort money for their desperate journeys,” IOM quoted its spokesperson saying in a separate statement Tuesday.
The exact death toll is still under investigation, but it is estimated to be in excess of 500 people, including at least 100 children, according to IOM’s estimated count based on eyewitness testimony.
The captain did a headcount, and without including minors under 10-years-old, counted 400-450 migrants, IOM said. The boat had sailed from Damietta in Egypt on Sept. 6. The passengers were from the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Survivors were from Egypt, Syria and Palestine and said the smugglers who capsized their boat were Palestinian and Egyptian.
The exact date of the ship sinking is unknown, as it took days for survivors to be picked up from the water by passing ships. However, a young girl and six others were rescued, AFP reported on Sept. 13, saying the boat sank on Friday Sept. 12 according to Greek authorities.
IOM’s Christiane Berthiaume said the vessel sank off Malta’s coast on Sept. 10, the Irish Times reported Monday.
Not all the passengers survived the ordeal at sea due to weather and critical injuries. Different reports have put the total number of survivors at nine.
This latest tragedy came immediately following another refugee boat disaster off the coast of Libya on Sept. 14, as IOM believes that nearly 200 people are missing following the capsizing of a boat carrying migrants there.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has estimated the total number of migrant deaths this year from crossings between North Africa and the Middle East to Europe to be 2,000. But, IOM stated that the number may already be approaching 3,000, more than four times the figure from 2013, which IOM’s Missing Migrants Project estimated to be at 700 deaths.
“The numbers dying off Europe’s coasts are shocking and unacceptable,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. “These are women, children and men who only hope for a more dignified life. The risks they take reflect their desperation and we cannot keep abandoning them to their fate.”