At least 16 dead bodies were pulled out of the sea when a boat conveying about 600 North African refugees, among them mostly Libyans capsized near the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Sunday.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that around a hundred people more were still unaccounted for.
The mishap is highlighting the need for increased attention to the growing refugee crisis from war-torn North Africa and again bringing immigration issues to the forefront in Italy.
So far this year, some 30,000 immigrants have arrived from Libya and Tunisia to Lampedusa, a small speck of land closer to Africa than to the far larger Italian island of Sicily.
The topic of immigration was already one of the main topics of conversation in a summit between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and French counterpart Nicholas Sarkozy last month, and Italian officials have been calling for European Union aid to help process the thousands of illegal African immigrants coming ashore in Lampedusa, Sicily, and elsewhere.
In Italy, the topic had lost some visibility in recent weeks, as attention regarding Libya turned toward Italy’s participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s efforts to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, cumulating with Italy’s hosting of the second meeting of the Contact Group on Libya last week in Rome.
But with Sunday’s events turned attention back toward immigration, as television news programs carried the images of wet and exhausted immigrants escorted to shore by Italian coast guard officials, and newspapers and news sites running tales of the ragged boat that was tossed against the rocks near Lampedusa after its steering gear failed.
Local media said that as many as 600 people were on the craft and at least 16 of them died, including two babies. The death toll was likely to rise further as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that around a hundred people were still unaccounted for.
“It’s an absolute tragedy,” Sybella Wilkes, a UN spokeswoman, was quoted as saying in the Italian press. “This is of a magnitude we have not seen before.”
The Italian coast guard, local police, and even private individuals in Lampedusa were reported to be aiding in the relief effort, but Wilkes said that NATO, which is organizing the international part of the military effort in Libya, is not participating in the efforts.
If that proves to be true, it could deflect from the importance of the event because it would distance it from the events in Libya. But Niccola Torcella, a spokesman for a Sicilian police squad working in Lampedusa, told Xinhua that would be a mistake.
“Even if these people are not from Libya, it’s clear that the problems in Africa have an impact beyond Libya and it is clear that the thousands of refugees who have already arrived from Libya and Tunisia have taxed the infrastructure in Lampedusa beyond reason,” Torcella said.
Wilkes estimated that at least a thousand people had died making the crossing from Africa to Europe this year. She called on all vessels in the Mediterranean to keep an eye open for ships of immigrants.
“Ship captains should consider that any boat of immigrants they see could be in distress and in need of rescue,” she said.