Over 300 believed drowned off Libya

At least 300 people are believed to have drowned in the an attempt to escape from Africa, according to a statement from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a non-profit based in Switzerland.

The IOM denounced the actions of the Libyan people smugglers which sent desperate African migrants to sea during a storm in unseaworthy inflatable dinghies. The organization says only nine people survived this latest tragedy. The survivors were rescued by an Italian commercial vessel on Monday in the vicinity of where 105 were picked up by the Italian Coast Guard that same day, 29 of which died enroute to shore.

“What’s happening now is worse than a tragedy – it is a crime – one as bad as any I have seen in fifty years of service,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. “These smuggling networks act with virtual impunity and hundreds are dying. The world must act.”

Among the survivors being supported by IOM were three children who were traveling alone. The men, all from West Africa, had traveled to Libya from Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

“They forced us to climb aboard the ship with guns and sticks, robbing us of all our belongings,” a traumatized survivor told IOM staff in Lampedusa on Wednesday.

Another said: “We know that there were four inflatable rafts on the shore. Another one with approximately 100 [people] on it is missing.”

The IOM says the latest death toll could eclipse the October 2013 Lampedusa drowings, when 366 migrants died trying to reach Europe.

The survivors told IOM staff that the four boats left from a beach near Tripoli on Saturday.

“We know what fate we are going towards and (understand) the probability of dying,” one of the African survivors told IOM staff. “But it is a sacrifice we consciously make to have a future.”

The IOM says that despite severe winter conditions in the Mediterranean, 3,528 migrants managed to make the perilous journey to Italy last month.  Their main country of origin, according to Italy’s Ministry of Interior was Syria with 764 arrivals, followed by Gambia (451), Mali (436), Senegal (428), Somalia (405) and Eritrea (171).

“What happened early this morning off the Italian coasts is tragic and senseless loss of life,” said Federico Soda, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Italy. “Those of us who follow this topic every day are deeply saddened, but we cannot be shocked. It was predictable given the migration dynamics and the responses. That is what should concern us all.”

“Furthermore, smugglers treat migrants as a human cargo without value. They have sent more than 420 people to sea when conditions were dire, effectively sending them to their deaths,” he added.

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