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As many as 750 migrants feared dead in five Mediterranean shipwrecks

As many as 500 migrants are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last week when their boat was allegedly rammed by human traffickers in an incident described by the International Organization for Migration as “mass murder.”

At least four other vessels bound for Europe sank over the weekend – one sailing from Egypt and three from Libya – bringing the total number of dead and missing migrants in recent days to between 550 and 750, said Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees in Rome.

The deadliest incident occurred off Malta, where a group of Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and Sudanese migrants was reportedly ordered by traffickers to switch to a smaller vessel after setting out from the Egyptian port city of Damietta.

The group refused, saying the boat was too small to hold them, said two Palestinians interviewed by the International Organization for Migration after they were rescued and brought to Italy. The traffickers then used another vessel to ram the migrants’ boat, causing it to sink, the Palestinians said.

“If this story, which police are investigating, is true, it would be the worst shipwreck in years,” the organization said in a statement Monday. “Not an accident but a mass murder, perpetrated by criminals without scruples or any respect for human life.”

There were conflicting accounts of when the incident took place and how many people were aboard the migrants’ boat. The organization’s statement put the figure at about 500, and the U.N. refugee agency said it was closer to 300. There were 11 survivors.

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Many who make the dangerous crossing are headed to Italy, which has received at least 120,000 clandestine arrivals this year, double last year’s figure. About 2,500 others drowned in the attempt, the U.N. has said.

Syrians and Eritreans make up the largest number of people arriving in Italy. But Sami said that Iraqis as well as Palestinians fleeing from Gaza were adding to the flow of people seeking to escape conflict, oppression and poverty by going to Europe.

Many were choosing to sail from Egypt rather than Libya, which has been the traditional stepping-off point but is now riven by militia violence.

Leaving from Egypt “is a longer and more dangerous crossing, and they are being forced to switch boats mid-journey, sometimes five or six times possibly, as they are handed over between different groups of traffickers,” Sami said.

The Italian navy has been scouring the Mediterranean since October, plucking migrants from rickety vessels and bringing them to shore in a bid to save lives. Critics of the practice accuse the authorities of encouraging migrants to set sail by making the crossing less dangerous.

On Sunday, actress Angelina Jolie, a U.N. special envoy, backed rescue efforts when she visited a naval center in Malta and met a Syrian couple whose three children perished while making the crossing.

“We all need to wake up to the scale of this crisis,” she said. “There is a direct link between the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere and the rise in deaths at sea in the Mediterranean. We have to understand what drives people to take the fearful step of risking their children’s lives on crowded, unsafe vessels; it is the overwhelming desire to find refuge.”

Kington is a special correspondent.


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