More than 300 sub-Saharan African migrants are missing, presumed drowned in the Mediterranean, after the rubber dinghies on which they sailed from Libya to Italy sank, a disaster that has increased pressure to revive navy patrols in the area.
Four dinghies packed with about 430 migrants from Mali, Senegal, Gambia and the Ivory Coast left a Libyan beach on Saturday before they ran into heavy seas, a spokeswoman for the charity Save the Children said Wednesday.
One boat began to deflate, while another started to let in water through a hole in the hull, leaving both vessels partially submerged, said the spokeswoman, Giovanna di Benedetto.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that two out of 107 passengers survived on one boat, while seven out of 109 survived on the second. The nine survivors, who were picked up by a cargo ship after clinging to the boats, reported that a third boat, with about 100 people on board, had vanished in the high seas.
The fourth dinghy was intercepted on Monday by two small Italian coast guard vessels, who loaded 105 passengers on board. Officials said 29 of those died from hypothermia on the 18-hour trip back to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Di Benedetto said the survivors of the dinghy crossings reported that the passengers from all four vessels had been kept by traffickers in a camp in lawless Libya before they were herded at gunpoint to the dinghies over the weekend and forced to embark, despite protests over the rough seas.
"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," said Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's Europe bureau director.
Italy halted a navy search-and-rescue mission, known as Mare Nostrum, last year over cost concerns, and successfully pressured the European Union into launching its Triton patrol effort. But while Mare Nostrum ships sailed close to Libyan waters, the EU ships patrol just 30 nautical miles off the Italian coast.
The UNHCR warned that Triton was "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."
Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who launched Mare Nostrum, tweeted on Wednesday that the operation should be relaunched "[w]hether other European countries want it or not, whether it loses votes or not."
Despite the Mare Nostrum patrols, more than 3,000 migrants are still thought to have drowned in the Mediterranean last year.
Of 170,000 migrants and refugees who sailed to Italy last year, 42,000 were Syrians and 34,000 were Eritreans fleeing forced conscription.
In January, 3,500 migrants arrived on Italian shores, an increase from arrivals in January last year, the UNHCR has said.