Forty-one African migrants drowned in the Mediterranean on Thursday, survivors told rescuers, pushing to more than 900 the number who have died this year making the perilous sea crossing from Libya to Italy.
The incident occurred during a week in which over 10,000 people took advantage of calmer weather in the Mediterranean to leave Libya, where migrants and refugees waiting to cross have increasingly become victims of militia violence.
The latest tragedy at sea was compounded by violence as police in Sicily announced Thursday that they had arrested 15 Muslim migrants on suspicion of throwing Christians off a boat after a religious argument.
Acting on statements from Nigerians and Ghanaians among the 100 passengers on board the boat, Italian police arrested and jailed migrants from Mali, Senegal and the Ivory Coast on suspicion of “multiple aggravated murder motivated by religious hate."
Reports of the 41 deaths were given by four survivors of an inflatable dinghy carrying 45 migrants that reportedly sank after leaving Libya. Plucked from the sea by a rescue helicopter, the migrants were taken to the Sicilian port of Trapani.
Earlier this week, aid groups reported that 400 people drowned when a fishing boat ferrying migrants capsized. About 145 survivors of the incident said the boat had set out with about 550 passengers on board, many packed into the lower deck.
When a cargo ship appeared on the horizon, people on deck rushed to the side of the ship to wave, prompting the boat to keel over and sink. Rescuers only located nine bodies in the sea, suggesting many remained trapped below decks as the ship sank.
The litany of drownings brings the number of migrants dying this year en route to Italy to over 900, up from 17 by this time last year.
With about 18,000 migrants and refugees arriving in Italy so far this year, observers predict that the total in 2015 may outstrip the record number of 170,000 arrivals last year.
Last year, migrants and refugees arriving in Italy were mainly Syrians fleeing their civil war or Africans escaping poverty and oppression. This year, as Syrian refugees increasingly seek to reach Europe through Greece, migrants now leaving Libya mainly hail from African countries, including Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, Gambia, Nigeria and Guinea.
Reacting to the higher death toll, officials have said that Italian coast guard ships and patrol ships operating under a European Union mission are not able to reach boats as fast as the Italian navy ships that patrolled international waters looking for migrants before their mission was scrapped last year.
Jean-Francois Dubost, an Amnesty International official dealing with displaced people, said this week that the drownings highlighted the "horror of nothing having been sorted out in the Mediterranean” and charged that the European Union “has turned its back on its responsibilities and clearly threatens thousands of lives.”
The EU has said it will draw up a migration agenda for discussions by the end of May and finalize a report by Christmas.
Kington is a special correspondent.